Evidence for the Influence of Surface Heat Fluxes on Turbulent Mixing of Microplastic Marine Debris

Buoyant microplastic marine debris (MPMD) is a pollutant in the ocean surface boundary layer (OSBL) that is submerged by wave-driven turbulent transport processes. This study analyzes observed MPMD surface concentrations in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans to reveal a significant increase in concentrations during surface heating and a decrease during surface cooling. Turbulence-resolving large-eddy simulations of the OSBL for an idealized diurnal heating cycle suggest that turbulent downward fluxes of buoyant tracers are enhanced at night, facilitating deep submergence of plastics, and suppressed in heating conditions, resulting in surface-trapped MPMD. Simulations agree better with observations if enhanced mixing due to wave-driven Langmuir turbulence (LT) is included. The simulated time-dependent OSBL response results in hysteresis effects so that surface concentrations depend also on the phase of the diurnal heating cycle. The results demonstrate the controlling influence of surface heat fluxes and LT on turbulent transport in the OSBL and on vertical distributions of buoyant marine particles.

Tobias Kukulka, Kara L. Law, Giora Proskurowski, AMS, January 2016

The article

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