Casting for data on microplastics in the ocean
With the new Seale Coastal Zone Observatory, a team of researchers led by geoscientist Robert Weiss will take on complex problems such as microplastics in the ocean by combining data analytics, innovative technologies, and interdisciplinary thinking.
Like grains of sand on a day at the beach, microplastics find their way into everything. Once formed, these tiny particles of decaying plastic bounce back and forth in dizzying fashion between people, wildlife, and the marine environment.
Scientists have traced their presence to the tissue of fish and birds. Viruses and bacteria have been discovered to form biofilms over them, which enables ocean travel for the pathogens and new entryways into organisms. Microplastics have even been detected in human blood.
If microplastics are as widespread as studies suggest, just how much of them are concentrated in the ocean and what are they made of? How do they move through its waters? And how will they affect people, wildlife, and the marine environment — now and in the future? At the Seale Coastal Zone Observatory, a new initiative in Virginia Tech’s Center for Coastal Studies, an interdisciplinary group of researchers — including biologists, veterinary scientists, and engineers — will work together to find answers.
The program, led by Robert Weiss, a professor of geosciences in the Virginia Tech College of Science, aims to model the present and future effects of microplastics on the marine environment and its life. Weiss hopes to depict the results of human behavior that brings microplastics to the ocean.
“What we want to create is a set of outcomes that help people to make decisions about their behavior, and by people, I mean individuals, governments, and society as a whole,” said Weiss, who directs the Center for Coastal Studies. “Decisions have consequences, and sometimes those consequences are hidden and cascading.”
To do that, the team will need to collect unprecedented amounts of data from an ocean in constant flux.
The new endeavor is possible because of the generosity of Virginia Tech alumni Bill and Carol Seale, who have committed a $2 million gift to the project. Their generous support has enabled Weiss and his team to develop a comprehensive plan to begin ocean monitoring. “The Coastal Zone Observatory’s work is a critical step forward to help us become better stewards of the world’s oceans, which are arguably our most critical resource on Earth,” said Bill Seale.
Following the data trail
According to Weiss, our knowledge of the marine environment — apart from the presence of microplastics — is full of holes. That’s in part because the ocean itself is a fickle source of data.
“We know the resolution of the surface of Mars better than the surface of our ocean floor,” Weiss said. “But that’s topography just on the seafloor. Now imagine how little we know about how conditions are when the water in the ocean is constantly moving. How can we describe a condition in a certain area if it’s constantly changing? If the moment you measure it, it’s gone?”
Researchers at the Coastal Zone Observatory will collect ocean data such as temperature and turbidity — the ability of sunlight to travel into depth — in a way that adapts to the ocean’s transience. They'll use sensor-equipped swarms of underwater robots developed by a team of engineers led by Dan Stilwell, an electrical engineering professor in the College of Engineering and director of the Virginia Tech Center for Marine Autonomy and Robotics.
“It is energizing to watch the Seale Coastal Zone Observatory rapidly take shape,” said Kevin Pitts, dean of the College of Science. “The pollution of our oceans is worsening by the day, and I’m excited to see researchers in the Colleges of Science, Engineering, and veterinary medicine collaborate to learn more about these issues and find ways to help mitigate a global problem.”
The approach “rethinks the way we take ocean data,” Weiss said. He believes it can help the team establish a data set that reflects the marine environment as it’s shaped by climate change over time. Autonomous vehicles give researchers a much more dynamic method for measuring environmental conditions, with the ability to move through ocean depths and with currents to follow the data. Eventually, the team can then operate those vehicles to collect microplastics concentrations and learn how they’re affected by the ocean conditions in flux around them.
“Let’s say, in the future, we have a sensor that would allow us to determine in situ, very quickly, the concentration of microplastics,” said Weiss, who is director of the Academy of Integrated Science, also part of the College of Science. “We can follow the value of concentrations in the ocean, and by the motion of the vehicle, we can determine how these concentrations evolve over time. So that gives us a much more comprehensive, and full, data set to understand how microplastics move in the ocean. What conditions, like temperature, are they dependent on?”
As researchers gather data on the marine environment, others at the Coastal Zone Observatory will study the impact of microplastics on marine life as that impact extends from individuals to species and moves up the food chain. In the Chesapeake Bay area, biologists from the College of Science and veterinarians from the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine will study the effects of ingesting microplastics on fish used for seafood. Others will collaborate with biologists from Radford University and Connecticut’s Fairfield University to study microplastics consumption by tilapia and Magellanic penguins and learn which types of microplastics affect coastal organisms the most.
The Center for Coastal Studies is part of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute. Weiss launched the center in 2020 to coordinate research, teaching, and outreach aimed at ensuring a more sustainable coexistence of humankind and nature within coastal communities.
A passion for protecting oceans
Weiss believes that predictive models informed by both of these projects will ground a better understanding of how microplastics affect the oceans not only today, but decades out.
“We need to see how their impact grows. It’s not enough to say, this is how many microplastics are in the ocean and this is the impact on fish and marine mammals,” Weiss said. “We need to create models that describe what will happen in 50 years if we do this? Or if we do that? Or if we do nothing?”
With the program’s research projects still in development, Weiss believes it’s critical to weave them together with interdisciplinary capacity-building before jumping in. It’s the complexity of coastal issues such as microplastics and the connectedness of the Coastal Zone Observatory’s methods for studying them that drew the support of the Seales.
“We have long admired the college’s interdisciplinary approach to science and the university’s incredible breadth of expertise,” said Bill Seale, who earned his bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 1986 and an MBA in 1988, both from Virginia Tech. “We feel confident this strategic collaboration will leverage our strengths in the traditional sciences, engineering, veterinary medicine, and data science to help inform decision making that benefits society and defines solutions for healthy ocean ecosystems.”
Added Carol Seale, who earned her bachelor’s in apparel, housing, and resource management in 1988, “We live in a time of critical pressures on coastal landscapes throughout the world. It’s a serious and complex problem. We’re glad that the Center for Coastal Studies is stepping forward in a bold way to study and address it.”
In addition to their passion for healthy and sustainable oceans, the Seales are committed to research that advances human health. Their Seale Innovation Fund at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC helps crossdisciplinary research teams pursue bold new ideas in science, enabling transformative biomedical scientific advances in a wide range of areas, including cancer, chronic pain, and brain development.