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Monitoring marine litter from space is now a reality

Every 60 seconds the equivalent of a lorry-load of plastic enters the global ocean. Where it goes after that remains largely unknown. But a new ESA Discovery study reported in Nature Communications has proven the concept of monitoring floating plastic litter using satellites.

Mediterranean marine litter mapped by satellite

The quantity of plastic floating on the sea surface is rarely high enough to generate a detectable signal from space. Plastics and other floating debris have to accumulate into dense patches of at least tens of metres in area to be detectable using existing satellites.

These patches of floating litter are called ‘slicks’, ‘streaks’ or ‘litter windrows’. They are often filament-shaped, resulting from the presence of convergence current lines on the sea surface.

Detecting such litter windrows is indicative of high pollution at a particular place and time. But could such scattered and short-lived patches of litter provide sufficiently useful data for global monitoring of plastic pollution?


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