Planet vs. Plastics: Quantifying Microplastics Along the Brazilian Coast

Using NASA Earth observation data, researchers assessed miles of Brazilian coastline to identify high-risk points of fish contaminated with microplastics.

Key Takeaways

  • H2Plastic, one of the winning teams from the 2024 Pale Blue Dot: Visualization Challenge, found that microplastic concentrations along the Brazilian coast are elevated beyond acceptable standards
  • Microplastics are not only an ocean pollutant, but contaminate coastal fish populations, an important food source
  • Spreading awareness of this issue is vital to protecting the health of coastal communities—both human and marine
  • NASA Dataset: CYGNSS L3 Ocean Microplastic Concentration V1.0

Overview of H2Plastic

H2Plastic addresses an issue that remains inadequately explored, particularly within Brazilian communities. We have observed significant pollution, with individuals habitually discarding waste—notably plastic—onto the streets. Much of the waste ultimately finds its way into the ocean and undergoes degradation due to environmental factors, transforming into microplastic particles. These microplastics are so tiny (smaller than five millimeters) that they are often ingested inadvertently by marine animals. When people in local communities then eat the contaminated fish, these microplastics may pose health risks.

Through our research, we have concluded that access to satellite data regarding microplastic concentrations in the sea is crucial for comprehensively studying the impacts and patterns of this issue as well as for seeking effective solutions. We used ocean microplastic concentration data from NASA’s Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS) mission to illustrate the impact of microplastics on marine biodiversity and human health.

Visualizing CYGNSS Data

Our team had more than 2GB of data in netCDF files from April 2017 to September of 2018. To start processing these data, we used Xarray, a Python library that is used to work with DataFrames in the netCDF format.

Using Xarray and NumPy, we processed the data to filter microplastic concentration data of just the Brazilian coasts. We then used Matplotlib to plot graphics that could show us the increases and decreases of microplastic concentrations in some areas of the Brazilian coast, including the coasts of São Paulo, Rio De Janeiro, Bahia, Rio Grande do Norte, and other Brazilian states.

We also used a dynamic visualization technique employing Cartopy together with the Matplotlib animation library to generate a video showcasing the movement of large areas of microplastic concentrations over the months covered by our dataset. This allowed us to visually observe the fluctuations in microplastic concentrations along the Brazilian coasts.

Image from the H2Plastic Dashboard showing microplastic concentrations along the coast of Brazil visualized by the H2Plastic team using CYGNSS data. Red and orange colors indicate areas with higher concentrations of microplastics, such as along the coast. Image copyright 2024 Team H2Plastic.

We were taken aback by the notably elevated concentration of microplastics observed throughout the months under analysis, which failed to meet even the minimum acceptable threshold. Undoubtedly, such levels have detrimental effects on marine biodiversity, thereby directly impacting human life.

However, we were dismayed by the scarcity of available data on this matter, a concern that we extensively address in our detailed report. We underscore the critical necessity for increased data accessibility to effectively tackle this issue.

Our interactive dashboard visualizes all the data we gathered and makes our data accessible to anyone interested in how microplastics impact Brazilian populations. Our dashboard also increases awareness about this global issue.

The Importance of Social Awareness

By disseminating crucial information to both the scientific community and the general population, our project aligns closely with the 2024 Earth Day theme of Planet vs. Plastics, which advocates for widespread awareness on the health risk of plastics. Our work empowers local communities by providing information on the concentration of microplastics along the Brazilian coast, raising awareness about the environmental and health impacts associated with these materials, and engaging people in actions to address the issue.

Additionally, we intend to use the gathered data to deliver presentations at public schools within our communities. We view this as an opportunity to cultivate greater societal awareness and inspire students to actively seek solutions, engage in project-based initiatives, or contemplate their individual actions.

By fostering these discussions, we aim to encourage students to initiate dialogue with their families, thereby catalyzing broader engagement and collective action toward addressing environmental challenges. In doing so, we aim to enhance the likelihood of effecting meaningful change in this regard, leveraging both individual and scientific initiatives.

Access the Data

Users can access the suite of CYGNSS Ocean Microplastic Concentration data using Earthdata Search or through NASA's Physical Oceanography Distributed Active Archive Center (PO.DAAC).

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