Online database maps ocean pollution and its effect on animals

litter distribution map
© LITTERBASE -- Map shows where most ocean trash ends up.

A group of German scientists has compiled findings from 1,267 studies in an effort to make information accessible to the public.

There is no away. Garbage trucks do not make trash disappear. They simply move it to a place where it can be conveniently forgotten. Unfortunately, our trash-generating habits are catching up with us, as the planet cannot continue to absorb it so rapidly. Garbage is now visible everywhere, on land and in the sea, and it’s affecting animals, too.

Three scientists from the Alfred-Wegener Institute in Germany have created an online database called LITTERBASE, with the goal of centralizing scientific research on global ocean pollution. They have taken the results of 1,267 studies and turned them into interactive maps and infographics that make the information more accessible and searchable for the public.

One map (above) illustrates litter and microplastic distribution and another (below) reveals the different kinds of interactions that animals have with trash, i.e. entanglement, colonization, ingestion. There are also infographics that show the global composition of litter (plastic is biggest by far) and what amounts are found on the seafloor, in the water column, on beaches and the sea surface.

litter effect on animals© LITTERBASE -- This map shows ways in which species are affected by litter. Purple is colonization, orange is entanglement, green is ingestion, yellow is other (partial screenshot of full map)

As people become more aware of the immense threat of plastic pollution and demand change, policy makers are paying closer attention and starting to make important decisions about how to mitigate the problem. Hence, LITTERBASE’s focus on making valuable scientific information accessible and easy to understand:

“Knowledge is vital to increase public awareness of this environmental problem and to take appropriate counter-measures. However, this knowledge is not readily accessible when it is hidden in scientific literature. In addition, the sheer wealth of information renders it increasingly intangible.

“[LITTERBASE] forms the basis of continuously updated maps and figures for policy makers, authorities, scientists, media and the general public on the global amount, distribution and composition of marine litter and its impacts on aquatic life. The portal conveys a broad, fact-based understanding of this environmental problem.”

You may notice that some parts of the distribution map (at the very top) are empty. This does not mean they’re unpolluted; rather, they haven’t been studied sufficiently. Certain places like the Mediterranean Sea have been examined in much greater detail than the Arctic or Dead Seas.

global composition of marine litter© LITTERBASE

Dr. Melanie Bergmann, who worked on the project along with Dr. Lars Gutow and Dr. Mine B. Tekman, hopes that the database is a place where old, forgotten studies can come to light again. She told the Maritime Executive:

“I discovered a cache of old data on litter in the Antarctic, which the signatory countries of the Antarctic Treaty gathered on a regular basis. In addition, the ingestion of microplastic at the beginning of the food chain was investigated for various groups of plankton and unicellular organisms as far back as the 1980s. As such, LITTERBASE will also help us rediscover ‘old’ and in some cases forgotten findings.”

Tags: Animals | Oceans | Plastic Bags | Plastics | Pollution | Water Conservation

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