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Micro-Fate: On an expedition in the Pacific since the end of May

An international project team under the leadership of the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) recently spent five weeks in the Pacific Ocean examining the occurrence and final destination of microplastics in the oceans. The expedition marked the launch of the "Micro-Fate" project, which aims to clarify whereabouts the plastic particles accumulate in the sea, how the material is broken down and what effects this has on the environment.

On 30 May, the research vessel "Sonne" set out from Vancouver, Canada, in the direction of Singapore, where the five-week tour finally ended. On board were 19 researchers from the fields of biology, ecotoxicology and environmental chemistry. The aim of the trip was to collect specimens for subsequent laboratory analysis, and to carry out initial testing. Existing estimates of the amount of plastic waste in the seas are based on computer models, individual data and observations from the air. "We want to substantiate this and find out what happens to the plastic in the ocean and what effects microplastics have on the environment," explains the head of the project, Dr. Annika Jahnke, an environmental chemist from the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ). The project, which runs until the year 2021, is funded by the German Federal Ministry for Education and Research (BMBF) and involves the participation of several research institutes. For example, the Fraunhofer IKTS has already examined on board samples taken from the surface water, the water column and the ocean bed in order to obtain information on the vertical distribution of the plastic particles. It is assumed that the majority of the material ends up on the ocean floor. Studies on the changing properties of plastic particles through weathering and fragmentation were also performed on board.

The research team expect the samples to provide data that will enable a more accurate calculation of concentrations, composition, age and biofilm covering. They are also interested in any pollutants that release microplastics into the marine environment or absorb them.

Also participating in the Micro-Fate project, entitled "Characterizing the fate and effects of microplastic particles between hotspots and remote regions in the Pacific Ocean", apart from the UFZ and the Fraunhofer IKTS, are the Leibniz Institute for Baltic Sea Research Warnemünde (IOW) and Stockholm University in Sweden. Two guest institutions also took part in the expedition, namely the Alfred Wegener Institute Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI) and the Senckenberg research institute. The Federal Ministry for Education and Research (BMBF) is funding the project up to 2021 to the tune of approx. EUR 820,000.