Images of climate innovation

Zooplankton Plastic Pump

Zooplankton regulate the oceanic sink of atmospheric CO2 by promoting the transport of carbon to the oceanic sediments. This carbon transport is threatened by microplastics, which find their way into zooplankton. The British Antarctic Survey's CUPIDO project uses novel field measurements to assess the transfer of microplastics in the ocean once incorporated into zooplankton (Zooplankton Plastic Pump) and how it might affect the oceans' capability to regulate atmospheric CO2 levels.

The ocean absorbs about 30% of atmospheric CO2, helping mitigate the effects of climate change, with huge benefits for our society. Zooplankton, tiny marine organisms with a global biomass higher than that of humans, play an important role in this process through the so-called Blue Carbon pathway. They promote the transport and storage of large quantity of carbon to the deep oceanic sediments through the sinking of their faeces, moults and carcasses and through their movement along the water column.

Nowadays this process is potentially threatened by a global emerging stressor: plastic pollution. Once in the ocean, plastic litter breaks down into millions of small fragments called microplastics, which can find their way into zooplankton.

The British Antarctic Survey's CUPIDO project aims to quantify the amount of microplastics transfer in the deep sea, once incorporated into zooplankton (named Zooplankton Plastic Pump).

The central hypothesis of CUPIDO is that the Zooplankton Plastic Pump may reduce the zooplankton ability to transport carbon in the oceanic sediment and in turn affect the capability of the ocean to sequester atmospheric CO2. To address this hypothesis CUPIDO project involves innovative long-term measurements conducted in the field (open ocean) during multidisciplinary scientific research cruises.

International strategy on climate change mitigation and adaptation relies on the most robust projections of future changes to CO2 storage and therefore understanding the anthropogenic impact on existing ecosystem services (e.g., atmospheric CO2 emissions mitigated by the ocean) is fundamental.

Further, the potential decrease in carbon storage in the deep sea related to the Zooplankton Plastic Pump can affect welfare for society and can be estimated in economic term. The CUPIDO outcomes will support effective science-driven policymaking on plastics to develop environmental management and targeted actions in this field.

Entrant: Clara Manno and Elisa Bergami , British Antarctic Survey

Copyright: Clara Manno, British Antarctic Survey