Many of today’s environmental challenges are so big that it can seem impossible ever to get a handle on them. Consider ocean plastic pollution: Studies have shown that huge quantities of plastic trash wash into the ocean every year, where they age and degrade into tiny fragments. So far, though, scientists have lacked good methods for detecting and tracking all that waste – the first steps toward cleaning it up.

In a recent study, University of Michigan climate and space scientist Christopher Ruf and his research assistant, Madeline Evans, proposed a new approach: using an existing network of satellites that monitors tropical wind speeds. They found that zones where the water’s surface is unusually smooth correlate with dense concentrations of microplastic particles. Their work could help target cleanup efforts and identify when and where big quantities of plastic trash are released into the ocean.

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Jennifer Weeks

Senior Environment + Energy Editor

Plastic fragments washed onto Schiavonea beach in Calabria, Italy, in a 2019 storm. Alfonso Di Vincenzo/KONTROLAB /LightRocket via Getty Images

The ocean is full of tiny plastic particles – we found a way to track them with satellites

Christopher Ruf, University of Michigan

New research suggests that an effective way to locate and track large concentrations of microplastics in the ocean could be from high in the sky.

Politics + Society

Arts + Culture

Economy + Business

  • 3 billion people cannot afford a healthy diet

    William A. Masters, Tufts University; Anna Herforth, Tufts University

    New data shows how high prices and low incomes prevent 4 in 10 people worldwide from buying enough nutritious foods for a healthy diet.

Science + Technology


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