Scientists Use NASA Satellite Data to Track Ocean Microplastics From Space


Jun 25, 2021

An assortment of microplastic fragments, filaments, and fibers from the North Atlantic Subtropical Gyre displayed in a disposable water bottle.
An assortment of microplastic fragments, filaments, and fibers from the North Atlantic Subtropical Gyre displayed in a disposable water bottle.Credits: Courtesy of Nicole Trenholm / Ocean Research Project

Scientists from the University of Michigan have developed an innovative way to use NASA satellite data to track the movement of tiny pieces of plastic in the ocean.

Microplastics form when plastic trash in the ocean breaks down from the sun’s rays and the motion of ocean waves. These small flecks of plastic are harmful to marine organisms and ecosystems. Microplastics can be carried hundreds or thousands of miles away from the source by ocean currents, making it difficult to track and remove them. Currently, the main source of information about the location of microplastics comes from fisher boat trawlers that use nets to catch plankton – and, unintentionally, microplastics.

The new technique relies on data from NASA’s Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS), a constellation of eight small satellites that measures wind speeds above Earth’s oceans and provides information about the strength of hurricanes. CYGNSS also uses radar to measure ocean roughness, which is affected by several factors including wind speed and debris floating in the water.

Working backward, the team looked for places where the ocean was smoother than expected given the wind speed, which they thought could indicate the presence of microplastics. Then they compared those areas to observations and model predictions of where microplastics congregate in the ocean. The scientists found that microplastics tended to be present in smoother waters, demonstrating that CYGNSS data can be used as a tool to track ocean microplastic from space.

The results were published online on June 9, 2021 in IEEE Transactions of Geoscience and Remote Sensing. The work was done by Chris Ruf, professor at the University of Michigan and principal investigator for CYGNSS, and undergraduate student Madeline C. Evans.

Scientists from the University of Michigan have developed a new way to find sources of ocean microplastics and track their movements using NASA satellite data.Credits: University of Michigan

By Sofie Bates
NASA’s Earth Science News Team

Last Updated: Jun 25, 2021

Editor: Sofie Bates

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June 27, 2021 2:31 am

This looks like a fairly naive false correlation. Their video clip claims the garbage patch is in the north. Then as as winter arrives it disappears and reappears off the coast of S. Am.

It seems pretty clear from that, that either the Klingons are using some kind of teleporter device to sneakily shift our “garbage patch” from one hemisphere to the other, or they are making spurious assumptions about water roughness and presence of garbage.

There is very little mixing of waters between N.Pac and S.Pac and the idea that a massive patch of garbage can just “evaporate” with the seasons and reappear in a different ocean is so rediculous that this should never have seen light of day except as NEGATIVE result showing that this was NOT a method to track micro plastics.

I guess we can safely class this one a garbage science, pun intended.

Last edited 6 months ago by Greg
Reply to  Greg
June 27, 2021 5:32 am

I was struck by the same thought this sounds like a stupid guess at a correlation that likely isn’t real.

John I Reistroffer
Reply to  Greg
June 27, 2021 12:46 pm

10-4 Greg, You hit the nail on the head!

Mike Jonas(@egrey1)
Reply to  Greg
June 27, 2021 1:52 pm

Thanks, Greg. My first thought exactly.

Reply to  Greg
June 28, 2021 8:47 am

Scientific discovery should be so simple.

June 27, 2021 2:34 am

I’m waiting for someone to start embedding microscopic iron in the plastics so we can filter them with magnets.

Reply to  Ralph LeVitt
June 27, 2021 3:12 am

Great way to start seeding the oceans with iron. Bill Gates will give millions.

June 27, 2021 2:39 am

Well actually, the title of the paper is:

Toward the Detection and Imaging of Ocean

Microplastics With a Spaceborne Radar

So they are NOT claiming they can actually detect plastics. It’s just “towards” being able to do so, hopefully.

June 27, 2021 2:44 am

Their video proves this is a load of bunk. The idea that the “great Pacific garbage patch” can appear and disappear with the seasons and switch from one ocean to another following the sun is so stupid that it proves this method can do nothing at all.

It is clearly a false correlation based on a seasonal dependency of roughness. Maybe they should look at water temperature and salinity as more probably causes, the presence of algal blooms.

There is also the strange pseudo-crystaline properties of the sea water surface.

I guess we can file this one under garbage science, pun intended.

Last edited 6 months ago by Greg
Richard M
Reply to  Greg
June 27, 2021 12:08 pm

I suspect what they are seeing the warming effect of micro-plastics. This will tend to follow the sun. The plastics are always present but when the sun is more directly overhead it leads to additional warming.

June 27, 2021 2:47 am

Does this mean they solved “the missing plastic problem”?

June 27, 2021 3:02 am

Wow, it’s worse than I though.

The only data is from (presumably seasonal) plankton net trawling. They admit global measurements of distribution and temporal variance do not exist, so they use “microplastic transport models”, which for the same reason much also be non validated.

So having built their hypothetical modelling castle on quicksand they then go on to claim their new method will support future modelling development and validation.

Any awareness of circular logic and the blind leading the blind seems to entirely escape the piercingly critical logic of Professor Ruf and his naive undergrad student.

The totally implausible idea that plastics can appear and disappear with the seasons and reappear thousands of miles away in a different ocean is ludicrous.

It pretty obviously points to a false correlation due to an uncontrolled variables and spurious assumptions. The near total absense of any supporting observational data to even calibrate the model, let alone validate it should also prevent this garbage from passing peer review and getting as far as publication.

This is not the kind of rigorous science which got NASA to the moon and back.

I guess it’s called Ruf logic.

Abstract— Ocean microplastic concentrations are known to

vary significantly by location, with especially high levels in

the North Atlantic and North Pacific gyres. Most direct mea-

surements come from plankton net trawling made in these

regions; concentrations in other regions have been estimated

by microplastic transport models that depend on large-scale

ocean circulation patterns. However, global measurements of

microplastic distribution and its temporal variability are lacking.

A new method is presented for detecting and imaging the global

distribution of ocean microplastics from space. The method uses

spaceborne bistatic radar measurements of ocean surface rough-

ness and relies on an assumed reduction in responsiveness to

wind-driven roughening caused by surfactants that act as tracers

for microplastics near the surface. Annual mean microplastic

distributions estimated by the radars are generally consistent

with model predictions. The spaceborne observations are also

able to detect temporal changes that are not resolved by the

models. For example, seasonal dependencies are observed at mid-

latitudes in both Northern and Southern Hemispheres, with lower

concentrations noted in the winter months. Time lapse images

at finer spatial and temporal scales reveal episodic bursts of

microplastic tracers in the outflow from major river discharges

into the sea. This new method will provide better monitoring of

ocean microplastics and will support future model development

and validation.

Last edited 6 months ago by Greg
mike macray
Reply to  Greg
June 27, 2021 4:28 am

Chumming around in the Gulf of SW Florida, sometimes called the Gulf of Mexico, I’ve noticed the ‘slick’ of smooth water around, and tailing behind the chum bag. Chum (chopped up dead fish) is oily and creates the slick. Since fish are notoriously messy eaters it follows that your postulate of correlation between “(presumably seasonal) plankton net trawling” and the fact that plankton are the leading edge of the marine food chain smorgasbord, is scientifically supported by my own personal obsevations!
Well done!

Reply to  mike macray
June 27, 2021 5:17 am

Thanks, I was not actually postulating any correlations, I was pointing out that the only observational data they claim to have, to calibrate their supposed link, is probably seasonal and thus highly biased and likely to infer spurious correlations into their very non studious “study”.

There is an obvious and declared season content to their conclusions which seems highly improbably due to the alleged longevity of micro plastic pollution.

The results are obviously spurious yet they are making video aminations and NASA is even misrepresenting the claimed significance of the paper.

mike macray
Reply to  Greg
June 27, 2021 7:24 am

No worries Greg,
I’m all on board with you on this one, it’s only the chum bag that goes overboard!
However, thanks to some compulsory education in organic chemistry a while back, I suspect that all common plastics are polymers and therefore subject to UV degradation. This would suggest that though the alleged “vast rafts of plastic detritus the size of Texas” may be unsightly, they are probably well within the capacity of Mother Nature to recycle and not that catastrophic to the environment.
Back on land I have observed stray goats munching happily on the plastic bags that decorate the ubiquitous barbed wire fences in places like Khartoum where vegetation is sparse or non existant.

John I Reistroffer
Reply to  mike macray
June 27, 2021 5:06 pm

Scrapings and spew from cruise ship in rough water

Reply to  Greg
June 27, 2021 4:55 pm

Modellers rarely seem concerned about the fitness for purpose of the data they use- possibly because modellers use data to generate funding while researchers use funding to generate data.

June 27, 2021 4:16 am

I preferred the 1992 study that used 28,000 plastic ducks.

At least it was real and observable.

Patrick MJD
June 27, 2021 4:23 am

Huh? They can’t find the “Texas” sized “island of plastic” in the Pacific.

Last edited 6 months ago by Patrick MJD
June 27, 2021 4:36 am

……….claim their new method will support future modelling development and validation.

oh yeah…

“The technique is a major improvement over current tracking methods, which rely mainly on spotty reports from plankton trawlers that net microplastics along with their catch.” 

and later

“The research team is currently testing this hypothesis”


It isn’t “a major improvement over current tracking methods” – “a bit premature” seems to hardly do this justice?

“is a major improvement” >>> NO, it isn’t >>> it’s a “might be” – with those sparse research ship cruises actually not elaborated as far as I can see – validation ? pfff……. “garbage science” hardly does this justice!

Their next project will be geoengineering the oceans with lycopodium to reduce formation of the biggest GHG.

Last edited 6 months ago by TomO
Reply to  TomO
June 27, 2021 5:20 am

The joke is that they criticise the trawling data but that is ALL they have to base their work on. They seem totally unphased by the lack of observations to test their hypothesised link to surface conditions.

Rich Davis
Reply to  Greg
June 27, 2021 5:49 am

Why do we need observations? This is dogma. Merely the development of doctrine.

John Dueker
June 27, 2021 4:53 am

Pretty useless. Assumes calm water is a micro plastic island. It’s not like we couldn’t find it.

Ignores the source, “81% of ocean plastics come from Asian rivers”.

Reply to  John Dueker
June 27, 2021 5:23 am

Good point, if they want to clean up the oceans they should just install massive nets across a couple of dozen major rivers and catch it at the source.
If we stopped dumping our “recycled” plastics on irresponsible 3rd world countries that would help too.

bill Johnston
Reply to  John Dueker
June 27, 2021 7:34 am

And wouldn’t rougher waters tend to drive the plastic bits below the surface? Nothing was said about the depth of the surface penetrated.

June 27, 2021 4:56 am

I love how progressives jump from one boogyman to another and totally ignore the real threats that the world faces. China is literally rounding up Muslims, and the left is focused on banning plastic straws.

Reply to  CO2isLife
June 27, 2021 5:35 am

The straws are a clear and present danger but China is really nice and friendly 🙂

Paul S.
Reply to  CO2isLife
June 27, 2021 8:07 am

In Patrick Moore’s latest book, he pooh poohs the extent of the “problem” plus the extent of the “ecological damage”.

Reply to  CO2isLife
June 27, 2021 9:16 am

Not only rounding up Muslims, but also journalists in Hong Kong. That’s an indication that there were some REAL journalists in Hong Kong, unlike the MSM in the US… amazing, isn’t it?

Reply to  CO2isLife
June 27, 2021 10:04 am

and the right: focused on proving climate change is a leftist plot?

Louis Hunt
Reply to  griff
June 27, 2021 8:20 pm

Climate change itself is not a leftist plot. It’s the proposed solutions to climate change and the desire for a China-like dictatorship to force the world to adopt these untested proposed solutions that is the leftist plot.

Reply to  griff
June 29, 2021 10:24 am

Actually, the leftist plot seems to be coming from Communist China in the form of purposeful plagues, cheap export goods, Muslim murdering, and dumping plastic trash in the Pacific…….along with greatly increasing their use of coal for electricity and carbon dioxide production.

June 27, 2021 6:12 am

As Greg notes, above, the first news release of June 10th, the original UMich News release and repost at Eurekalert included the paragraph:

Ruf’s team believes the changes in ocean roughness may not be caused directly by the microplastics, but instead by surfactants–a family of oily or soapy compounds that lower the surface tension on a liquid’s surface. Surfactants tend to accompany microplastics in the ocean, both because they’re often released along with microplastics and because they travel and collect in similar ways once they’re in the water.

…conveniently left out of the NASA edit. Not only has NASA gotten it wrong but dumbed it down to below nonsense threshold.

But why might a government agency news “edit” omit the subtitle (and video caption) that mentions China as a source of the dreaded microplastic scourge, I wonder? From the UMich release, linked above:

Satellites reveal fluctuation in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and releases from the Yangtze River

Smart Rock
Reply to  dk_
June 27, 2021 11:03 am

And how long will surfactants stay close to the plastics that brought them, once they’re in the turbulent open ocean?

Now you can see how “garbage patches” might disappear, after the surfactants have been washed away in a couple of cyclones.

The idea that water-soluble chemicals like surfactants and detergents would stick around the plastics that they once coated, even as the plastics are starting to fall apart due to UV light breaking bonds, is too much of a stretch for this observer (who has done enough laundry and hand dishwashing to have a good feel for how such chemicals behave in an aqueous environment).

This article is a good illustration of how “science” is done in the modern world.

June 27, 2021 6:16 am

” assumed reduction in responsiveness ” of ocean surface due to Microplastics . ya think maybe they should have verified this sketchy assumption before spending significant amounts of time / money studying something dependent on this ” assumption “?

Brian Pratt
June 27, 2021 7:40 am

All sorts of silly things are claimed about the storied ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’. One source a few years ago claimed it consisted of 8% microplastics. Another one with a slick map with the mandatory comparison to Texas stated it had a ‘concentration’ of 100 kg per square kilometer. That works out to be about 0.01 of a 500 ml plastic bottle per square meter. It seems doubtful that quantities like that could release enough surfactants to calm the sea surface and be detected by satellites.

June 27, 2021 8:21 am

Shared recycling over, under, and across the sea, is the very model of a Green new deal.

H. D. Hoese
June 27, 2021 9:22 am

I have long been interested in ocean surfaces biologically for several reasons, one is that they are relatively cheap to study in situ. To be fair this requires more reading, including some of the citations, but this seems to be validation by models, then jumping to the conclusion, as one example of “estimated microplastic outflow,” of surface attenuation amounts, justified by what happens with surfactants. Seems like too much of a stretch without actual surface measurements due to the jetsam and flotsam, including surfactants, out there anyway. Surfactant distribution from papers I have read is quite variable.

From the paper–
“The method uses space borne bistatic radar measurements of ocean surface roughness and relies on an assumed reduction in responsiveness to wind-driven roughening caused by surfactants that act as tracers for microplastics near the surface. ……. A log-linear regression between the MSS anomaly and each of the three model concentrations results in Pearson correlation coefficients of 0.95 (van Sebille), 0.94 (Lebreton),and 0.92 (Maximenko)……It is important to qualify these results by noting that, while there is a strong correlation between the observed MSS anomaly and modeled microplastic concentration, the retrieval algorithm developed here is empirical and may not be based on a direct physical connection between the presence of ocean microplastics and the suppression of ocean surface roughening by wind..”

Captain climate
June 27, 2021 9:33 am

No they didn’t

June 27, 2021 10:32 am

These small flecks of plastic are harmful to marine organisms and ecosystems.

How? All plastics are non toxic. That’s why all your food and beverages are put in it.

Should we use wood and metals instead? Oh wait, wood and metals are harmful to marine organisms and ecosystems.

Walter Sobchak
June 27, 2021 11:57 am

These dudes worry about microplastics from space. I think there are scarier things from space to worry about:

June 27, 2021 3:47 pm

They should start using those nets and trawlers to intentionally trap the microplastics. Then use the other trawlers and fish nets to intentionally harvest the rest of the large pieces.

That is what the billionaires should be financing.

John I Reistroffer
June 27, 2021 5:08 pm

This is the type of paper you get when you are faced with …”Publish or Perish”…basura Plastica

Colin Smith
June 27, 2021 5:21 pm

It does not seem very well correlated with areas of large population that dump everything in rivers and seas. And for that reason, I’m out.

June 28, 2021 6:48 am

So just more computer generated lies. Got it. Why don’t these clowns who claim to be so concerned about trash in the ocean simply volunteer to go clean it up? Travel to China and Africa and clean it up at the source? Oh, yea, they are never going to do anything useful, just keep stealing tax dollars. That is all leftist scumbags ever do. Oh, and pollute more than anyone else, they love spewing out pollution.

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