Recent studies suggest size-selective removal of small plastic particles from the ocean surface, an observation that remains unexplained. We studied one of the hypotheses regarding this size-selective removal: the formation of a biofilm on the microplastics (biofouling). We developed the first theoretical model that is capable of simulating the effect of biofouling on the fate of microplastic. The model is based on settling, biofilm growth and ocean depth profiles for light, water density, temperature, salinity and viscosity. Using realistic parameters, the model simulates the vertical transport of small microplastic particles over time, and predicts that the particles either float, sink to the ocean floor, or oscillate vertically, depending on the size and density of the particle. The predicted size-dependent vertical movement of microplastic particles results in a maximum concentration at intermediate depths. Consequently, relatively low abundances of small particles are predicted at the ocean surface, while at the same time these small particles may never reach the ocean floor. Our results hint at the fate of ‘lost’ plastic in the ocean, and provide a start for predicting risks of exposure to microplastics for potentially vulnerable species living at these depths.
Merel Kooi, Egbert H Van Nes, Marten Scheffer, and Albert A. Koelmans, Environ. Sci. Technol., Just Accepted Manuscript, June 14, 2017