University of Washington oceanographer Giora Proskurowski said he was on a research cruise in the Pacific Ocean and noticed the water surface was littered with tiny bits of plastic -- until the wind suddenly picked up and the plastic "disappeared." Taking water samples from 16 feet he discovered the wind was pushing the lightweight plastic particles below the surface.
The finding suggests data collected from just the surface of the water commonly underestimates the total amount of plastic in the water by an average factor of 2.5, a university release reported Wednesday.
"That really puts a lot of error into the compilation of the data set," Proskurowski said.
Proskurowski and his study co-authors have developed a simplified mathematical model to match historical weather data, collected by satellites, with previous surface sampling to estimate more accurately the amount of plastic in the oceans.
"By factoring in the wind, which is fundamentally important to the physical behavior, you're increasing the rigor of the science and doing something that has a major impact on the data," Proskurowski said.