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Study Reveals Connection Between Climate Change and Plastics Pollution

University of Rhode Island researchers Andrew Davies and Coleen Suckling say that when a major hurricane churns up storm surges and heavy, drenching rains, the storm washes trash from the land into our rivers and coasts.

Among the items being transported are plastics, the ubiquitous consumer material that is found in many products and packaging. The problem is that plastic takes an exceptionally long time to break down in the natural environment. Some plastic trash ends up in harbors, estuaries and on land. But much of it continues to be circulated throughout the ocean and can settle onto the seafloor.

At the root of global climate change and the worldwide plastics pollution problem are two related carbon-based fuels - oil and natural gas. Not only are the two among the key drivers of climate change, they are instrumental in the manufacturing of plastics. As storms intensify and become more frequent, the movement of trash from land to our oceans, and vice versa, is only going to get worse.

Now URI colleagues Davies, associate professor of biological sciences, and Suckling, assistant professor of sustainable aquaculture, are part of an international team of researchers including those from the Zoological Society London and Bangor University in Wales examining an often overlooked phenomenon, the compounding effect of climate change and plastics.

The team identified three significant ways in which the climate crisis and plastics pollution are connected, with the first being how plastic contributes to global greenhouse gases from production through disposal. The second demonstrates how extreme weather, like hurricanes and floods, will disperse and worsen pollution. The third is the effect that climate change and plastics pollution can have on marine species and ecosystems that are vulnerable to both.

The study was led by Helen Ford, a Ph.D. student at Bangor University, who worked with Davies and Suckling when they were at Bangor. The team published its results in a September article in the journal, Science of the Total Environment. Professor Heather Koldewey, senior technical specialist at the Zoological Society London, was the lead author.

"Climate change is undoubtedly one of the most critical global threats of our time," Koldewey said in a press announcement issued by the zoological society. "Plastic pollution is also having a global impact; from the top of Mount Everest to the deepest parts of the ocean. Both are having a detrimental effect on ocean biodiversity; with climate change heating ocean temperatures and bleaching coral reefs, to plastic damaging habitats and injuring or killing marine species. It's not a case of which issue is most important, it's recognizing that the two crises are interconnected and require joint solutions."

Davies said Ford organized the international team that conducted the study. "The premise of the paper addresses the fact that so many people view plastics pollution and climate change as separate things when they are not," Davies said. "They arise from the same principal material, oil.

"Climate change and plastic pollution have many similarities, including how we need to address them. We need international collaborations to address this problem, which essentially stems from the over-consumption of finite resources."

A key issue, according to Suckling, is the transport of plastics and microplastics over vast distances. She said that the Japan earthquake and resulting tsunami of 2011 transported materials all the way to Hawaii. The same thing happens with storms, she said. 

Suckling had witnessed Storm Emma when she was in North Wales, which ripped apart one of the marinas during 2018.

"The whole area was flooded with floating white polystyrene particles. The storm had split apart the walkway floating platforms in this marina and spilled out the polystyrene contents, posing a pollution risk," Suckling said. "This was at a site where an invasive species was being controlled, but plastics which spread from the site could increase the risk of transporting this invasive species."

Suckling said scientists are researching the ability of plastics to transport invasive species hundreds of miles.

"Since Hurricanes Henri and Ida, we have been looking at storm-induced transport of plastics," Davies said. "We sent our students out to collect samples from Narragansett Bay before and after the storms so we could start seeing what the impact would be. We are working on that data now. We want to see what the impact of these storms is on plastics in our oceans.

"The great thing about Narragansett Bay is it is so well studied. We are building on 60 years of research at URI or even longer," Davies said.

Davies also said the state's expertise in this area, including its universities and administrative agencies, make Rhode Island an ideal place to do the work.

"We have a wide range of disciplines, a relatively small number of stakeholders and a wide range of habitats," he said.

Since coming to URI, Suckling has published two papers on the impact of microplastics on marine life, particularly sea urchins. One of them, which addresses how sea urchins with different diet habits respond to eating microplastics, was published in the September 2020 online edition of Science of the Total Environment.

"It's still a relatively new area of science, where we still have much to understand. My work has shown that when we look at sea urchin species with slightly different feeding habits, we observe species-specific responses to ingesting microplastics," Suckling said.

This highlights that feeding habits could act as a potential indicator for sensitivity to microplastic ingestion, which could be important for impact assessments of plastic pollution and management strategies, according to Suckling.

In the meantime, Davies is leading a Rhode Island Sea Grant project working with Suckling that is examining the links between climate change and plastics.

"What no one has really done until now is quick-start the conversation about plastics and climate change in a concerted way," Suckling said. "We expect over the next several years, a lot more research will be done in the area."

Suckling said if marine ecosystems or organisms are already at the brink of what they can handle because of climate change, throwing additional problems at them could push them past their threshold of what they can cope with.

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