Creating a 3D map of the plastic litter polluting our oceans

What is TOPIOS?

TOPIOS (Tracking Of Plastic In Our Seas) is a 5-year (2017-2022) research project, funded through a European Research Council Starting Grant project to Erik van Sebille.

Its goal is to vastly improve our understanding of the way plastic litter moves through our ocean.

To achieve this, we will develop an innovative, powerful and comprehensive model for tracking marine plastic through our ocean.

The amount of plastic in our ocean is exponentially growing, with recent estimates of more than 5 million metric tonnes of plastic reaching the ocean each year. This plastic infiltrates the ocean food chain and thus poses a major threat to marine life. However, understanding of plastic movement and its budget in the ocean is inadequate to fully establish its environmental impact, prompting the EU and G7 to recently make marine litter a top science priority.

It is now recognised that the amount of plastic entering our ocean is several orders of magnitude larger than the estimates of floating plastic on the surface of the ocean. More than 99% of plastic within our ocean is therefore ‘missing’.

This TOPIOS project will make breakthroughs towards closing the plastic budget by creating a novel comprehensive modelling framework that tracks plastic movement through the ocean. Building on well-established previous work to follow generic water parcels through hydrodynamic ocean models, this project will modify these ‘virtual’ parcels to represent pieces of plastic by, for the first time, simulating fragmentation, sinking, beaching, wave-mixing and ingestion by biota.

The new parameterisations that underpin this modelling will be based on field data and new coastal flume wave tank lab experiments. The simulated plastic particles will be tracked within state-of-the-art hydrodynamic ocean models, in order to compute maps of pathways and transports around our oceans and on coastlines and in biota. This numerical modelling will be used to evaluate a broad suite of scenarios and test hypotheses, including where the risk to marine biota is greatest.

The results from this project will inform policymakers and the public on which countries, for example, are responsible for which part of the plastic problem, crucial for mitigation and legal frameworks. It will also inform engineers on where and how to best invest resources in mitigating the problem of plastic in our ocean.


Erik van Sebille

Associate Professor
@ Utrecht University

Erik leads and coordinates the TOPIOS project. He is an expert in Lagrangian Ocean Analysis.

Philippe Delandmeter

@ Utrecht University

Philippe improves and optimises the Parcels code used in TOPIOS to simulate plastic transport.

David Wichmann

PhD student
@ Utrecht University

David investigates how ocean currents and waves transport plastic litter around.

Mikael Kaandorp

PhD student
@ Utrecht University

Mikael investigates how to use machine learning to incorporate plastic distribution data into models.

Cleo Jongedijk

PhD student
@ Imperial Collge London

Cleo investigates how plastic litter ends up on beaches.

Anneke Vries

MSc student
@ Utrecht University

Anneke investigates the role of sea ice in transporting plastic through the Arctic.

Maarten Muller

MSc student
@ Utrecht University

Maarten investigates how plastic crosses the Southern Ocean near Antarctica.

Arianna Olivelli

MSc student
@ Utrecht University

Arianna tracks the origin of micro- and nanoplastic in the South Atlantic gyre.

Judith Ewald

MSc student
@ Utrecht University

Judith investigates how SKIM flow fields can be used to track microplastic.

Laura Chow

MSc student
@ Utrecht University

Laura creates puzzle boxes for high school students about marine plastic litter.

Michal Janssen

BSc student
@ Utrecht University

Michal simulates how debris from the MSC Zoe disperses through the North Sea.

Jose M Alsina

Lecturer in Fluid Mechanics
@ Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya

Jose is an expert in wave flume experiments, and investigates how plastic ends up on beaches.

Previous team members

  • Aike Vonk
    MSc student @ Utrecht University
  • Victor Onink
    MSc student @ Utrecht University
  • Miriam Sterl
    BSc student @ Utrecht University
  • Nicoleta Tsakali
    BSc student @ Utrecht University
  • Jeroen van Rijn
    BSc student @ Utrecht University
  • Simon Brouwer
    BSc student @ Utrecht University
  • Raymond Edwards
    BSc student @ Utrecht University
  • Samuel Wetherell
    MSci student @ Imperial College London

Collaborators (non-exhaustive)

  • Joe Scutt Philipps
    Postdoc @ Utrecht University
  • Charlotte Laufkötter
    Postdoc @ University of Bern
  • Peter Nooteboom
    PhD student @ Utrecht University

Peer-reviewed articles from TOPIOS

Buoyant marine plastic debris has become a serious problem affecting the marine environment. To fully understand the impact of this problem, it is important to understand the dynamics of buoyant debris in the ocean. Buoyant debris accumulates in “garbage patches” in each of the subtropical ocean basins because of Ekman convergence and associated downwelling at subtropical latitudes. However, the precise dynamics of the garbage patches are not well understood. This is especially true in the southern Indian Ocean (SIO), where observations are inconclusive about the existence and numerical models predict inconsistent locations of the SIO garbage patch. In addition, the oceanic and atmospheric dynamics in the SIO are very different to those in the other oceans. The aim of this paper is to determine the dynamics of the SIO garbage patch at different depths and under different transport mechanisms such as ocean surface currents, Stokes drift and direct wind forcing. To achieve this, we use two types of ocean surface drifters as a proxy for buoyant debris. We derive transport matrices from observed drifter locations and simulate the global accumulation of buoyant debris. Our results indicate that the accumulation of buoyant debris in the SIO is much more sensitive to different transport mechanisms than in the other ocean basins. We relate this sensitivity to the unique oceanic and atmospheric dynamics of the SIO.

Although marine plastic pollution has been the focus of several studies, there are still many gaps in our understanding of the concentrations, characteristics and impacts of plastics in the oceans. This study aimed to quantify and characterize plastic debris in oceanic surface waters of the Antarctic Peninsula. Sampling was done through surface trawls, and mean debris concentration was estimated at 1,794−2 with an average weight of 27.8−2. No statistical difference was found between the amount of mesoplastics (46%) and microplastics (54%). We found hard and flexible fragments, spheres and lines, in nine colors, composed mostly of polyurethane, polyamide, and polyethylene. An oceanographic dispersal model showed that, for at least seven years, sampled plastics likely did not originate from latitudes lower than 58°S. Analysis of epiplastic community diversity revealed bacteria, microalgae, and invertebrate groups adhered to debris. Paint fragments were present at all sampling stations and were approximately 30 times more abundant than plastics. Although paint particles were not included in plastic concentration estimates, we highlight that they could have similar impacts as marine plastics. We call for urgent action to avoid and mitigate plastic and paint fragment inputs to the Southern Ocean.

Floating microplastic in the oceans is known to accumulate in the subtropical ocean gyres, but unclear is still what causes that accumulation. We investigate the role of various physical processes, such as surface Ekman and geostrophic currents, surface Stokes drift and mesoscale eddy activity, on the global surface distribution of floating microplastic with Lagrangian particle tracking using GlobCurrent and WaveWatch III reanalysis products. Globally, the locations of microplastic accumulation (accumulation zones) are largely determined by the Ekman currents. Simulations of the North Pacific and North Atlantic show that the locations of the modeled accumulation zones using GlobCurrent Total (Ekman+Geostrophic) currents generally agree with observed microplastic distributions in the North Pacific, and with the zonal distribution in the North Atlantic. Geostrophic currents and Stokes drift do not contribute to large scale microplastic accumulation in the subtropics, but Stokes drift leads to increased microplastic transport to Arctic regions. Since the WaveWatch III Stokes drift and GlobCurrent Ekman current datasets are not independent, combining Stokes drift with the other current components leads to an overestimation of Stokes drift effects and there is therefore a need for independent measurements of the different ocean circulation components. We investigate whether windage would be appropriate as a proxy for Stokes drift but find discrepancies in the modelled direction and magnitude. In the North Pacific, we find that microplastic tends to accumulate in regions of relatively low eddy kinetic energy, indicating low mesoscale eddy activity, but we do not see similar trends in the North Atlantic.

We sampled 17 nesting sites for loggerhead (Caretta caretta) and green turtles (Chelonia mydas) in Cyprus. Microplastics (<5 mm) were found at all locations and depths, with particularly high abundance in superficial sand. The top 2 cm of sand presented grand mean ± SD particle counts of 45,497 ± 11,456 particles m−3 (range 637–131,939 particles m−3). The most polluted beaches were among the worst thus far recorded, presenting levels approaching those previously recorded in Guangdong, South China. Microplastics decreased with increasing sand depth but were present down to turtle nest depths of 60 cm (mean 5,325 ± 3,663 particles m−3. Composition varied among beaches but hard fragments (46.5 ± 3.5%) and pre-production nurdles (47.8 ± 4.5%) comprised most categorised pieces. Particle drifter analysis hindcast for 365 days indicated that most plastic likely originated from the eastern Mediterranean basin. Worsening microplastic abundance could result in anthropogenically altered life history parameters such as hatching success and sex ratios in marine turtles.

The whereabouts of the overwhelming majority of plastic estimated to enter the environment is unknown. This study’s aim was to combine information about the environmental occurrence and physicochemical properties of widespread polymers to predict the fate of aquatic plastic litter. Polyethylene and polypropylene are common in the surface layer and shorelines; polyester and cellulosic fibres in sewage treatment works, estuarine and deep-sea sediments. Overall, non-buoyant polymers are underrepresented on the ocean surface. Three main explanations are proposed for the missing plastic. The first is accumulation of both buoyant and non-buoyant polymers in sewage treatment works, river and estuarine sediments and along shorelines. The second is settling of non-buoyant polymers into the deep-sea. The third is fragmentation of both buoyant and non-buoyant polymers into particles smaller than captured by existing experimental methods. Some isolation techniques may overrepresent larger, buoyant particles; methodological improvements are needed to capture the full size-range of plastic litter. When microplastics fragment they become neutrally-buoyant, thus nanoplastics are potentially widely dispersed in aquatic systems, both horizontally and vertically. Ultimately, over decades or longer, plastics are potentially solubilized and subsequently biodegraded. The rates at which these processes apply to plastic litter in different environmental compartments remain largely unknown.

Global surface transport in the ocean can be represented by using the observed trajectories of drifters to calculate probability distribution functions. The oceanographic applications of the Markov Chain approach to modelling include tracking of floating debris and water masses, globally and on yearly-to-centennial timescales. Here, we analyse the error inherent with mapping trajectories onto a grid and the consequences for ocean transport modelling and detection of accumulation structures. A sensitivity analysis of Markov Chain parameters is performed in an idealised Stommel gyre and western boundary current as well as with observed ocean drifters, complementing previous studies on widespread floating debris accumulation. Focusing on two key areas of inter-ocean exchange - the Agulhas System and the North Atlantic intergyre transport barrier - we assess the capacity of the Markov Chain methodology to detect surface connectivity and dynamic transport barriers. Finally, we extend the methodology's functionality to separate the geostrophic and non-geostrophic contributions to inter-ocean exchange in these key regions.

There are fundamental gaps in our understanding of the fates of microplastics in the ocean, which must be overcome if the severity of this pollution is to be fully assessed. The predominant pattern is high accumulation of microplastic in subtropical gyres. Using in situ measurements from the 7th Continent expedition in the North Atlantic subtropical gyre, data from satellite observations and models, we show how microplastic concentrations were up to 9.4 times higher in an anticyclonic eddy explored, compared to the cyclonic eddy. Although our sample size is small, this is the first suggestive evidence that mesoscale eddies might trap, concentrate and potentially transport microplastics. As eddies are known to congregate nutrients and organisms, this phenomenon should be considered with regards to the potential impact of plastic pollution on the ecosystem in the open ocean.

Lagrangian analysis is a powerful way to analyse the output of ocean circulation models and other ocean velocity data such as from altimetry. In the Lagrangian approach, large sets of virtual particles are integrated within the three-dimensional, time-evolving velocity fields. Over several decades, a variety of tools and methods for this purpose have emerged. Here, we review the state of the art in the field of Lagrangian analysis of ocean velocity data, starting from a fundamental kinematic framework and with a focus on large-scale open ocean applications. Beyond the use of explicit velocity fields, we consider the influence of unresolved physics and dynamics on particle trajectories. We comprehensively list and discuss the tools currently available for tracking virtual particles. We then showcase some of the innovative applications of trajectory data, and conclude with some open questions and an outlook. The overall goal of this review paper is to reconcile some of the different techniques and methods in Lagrangian ocean analysis, while recognising the rich diversity of codes that have and continue to emerge, and the challenges of the coming age of petascale computing.

There is growing global concern over the chemical, biological and ecological impact of plastics in the ocean. Remote sensing has the potential to provide long-term, global monitoring but for marine plastics it is still in its early stages. Some progress has been made in hyperspectral remote sensing of marine macroplastics in the visible (VIS) to short wave infrared (SWIR) spectrum. We present a reflectance model of sunlight interacting with a sea surface littered with macro plastics, based on geometrical optics and the spectral signatures of plastic and seawater. This is a first step towards the development of a remote sensing algorithm for marine plastic using light reflectance measurements in air. Our model takes the colour, transparency, reflectivity and shape of plastic litter into account. This concept model can aid the design of laboratory, field and Earth observation measurements in the VIS-SWIR spectrum and explain the results.

Understanding the global mass inventory is one of the main challenges in present research on plastic marine debris. Especially the fragmentation and vertical transport processes of oceanic plastic are poorly understood. However, whereas fragmentation rates are unknown, information on plastic emissions, concentrations of plastics in the ocean surface layer (OSL) and fragmentation mechanisms is available. Here, we apply a systems engineering analytical approach and propose a tentative 'whole ocean' mass balance model that combines emission data, surface area-normalized plastic fragmentation rates, estimated concentrations in the OSL, and removal from the OSL by sinking. We simulate known plastic abundances in the OSL and calculate an average whole ocean apparent surface area-normalized plastic fragmentation rate constant, given representative radii for macroplastic and microplastic. Simulations show that 99.8% of the plastic that had entered the ocean since 1950 had settled below the OSL by 2016, with an additional 9.4 million tons settling per year. In 2016, the model predicts that of the 0.309 million tons in the OSL, an estimated 83.7% was macroplastic, 13.8% microplastic, and 2.5% was < 0.335 mm 'nanoplastic'. A zero future emission simulation shows that almost all plastic in the OSL would be removed within three years, implying a fast response time of surface plastic abundance to changes in inputs. The model complements current spatially explicit models, points to future experiments that would inform critical model parameters, and allows for further validation when more experimental and field data become available.

As ocean general circulation models (OGCMs) move into the petascale age, where the output of single simulations exceeds petabytes of storage space, tools to analyse the output of these models will need to scale up too. Lagrangian ocean analysis, where virtual particles are tracked through hydrodynamic fields, is an increasingly popular way to analyse OGCM output, by mapping pathways and connectivity of biotic and abiotic particulates. However, the current software stack of Lagrangian ocean analysis codes is not dynamic enough to cope with the increasing complexity, scale and need for customization of use-cases. Furthermore, most community codes are developed for stand-alone use, making it a nontrivial task to integrate virtual particles at runtime of the OGCM. Here, we introduce the new Parcels code, which was designed from the ground up to be sufficiently scalable to cope with petascale computing. We highlight its API design that combines flexibility and customization with the ability to optimize for HPC workflows, following the paradigm of domain-specific languages. Parcels is primarily written in Python, utilizing the wide range of tools available in the scientific Python ecosystem, while generating low-level C code and using just-in-time compilation for performance-critical computation. We show a worked-out example of its API, and validate the accuracy of the code against seven idealized test cases. This version 0.9 of Parcels is focused on laying out the API, with future work concentrating on support for curvilinear grids, optimization, efficiency and at-runtime coupling with OGCMs.

The leakage of large plastic litter (macroplastics) into the ocean is a major environmental problem. A significant fraction of this leakage originates from coastal cities, particularly during extreme rainfall events. As coastal cities continue to grow, finding ways to reduce this macroplastic leakage is extremely pertinent. Here, we explore why and how coastal cities can reduce macroplastic leakages during extreme rainfall events. Using nine global cities as a basis, we establish that while cities actively create policies that reduce plastic leakages, more needs to be done. Nonetheless, these policies are economically, socially and environmentally cobeneficial to the city environment. While the lack of political engagement and economic concerns limit these policies, lacking social motivation and engagement is the largest limitation towards implementing policy. We recommend cities to incentivize citizen and municipal engagement with responsible usage of plastics, cleaning the environment and preparing for future extreme rainfall events.

Media mentions with TOPIOS

Associated projects