PI Login

Study Provides Insights into How Floating Material Moves on the Ocean

October 22, 2019

Scientist John Taylor with the University of Cambridge analyzed simulations of small-scale fronts (<10 kilometers across) to better understand how they influence buoyant material transport across the ocean. The ocean circulation can cause the front to sharpen, leading to long and narrow features with an abrupt change in temperature or salinity. Taylor observed that small-scale fronts can be associated with strong surface convergence and downwelling, which causes buoyant material to accumulate and then be pulled beneath the surface by strong downwelling currents. These results have implications for oil spill response and for monitoring microplastics in the ocean by helping forecast where floating material may be accumulating, either on or beneath the ocean’s surface. The author published his results in the Journal of Physical Oceanography: Accumulation and subduction of buoyant material at submesoscale fronts. Buoyant material are particles that move upward relative to the surrounding water, such as bubbles, some types of phytoplankton, oil droplets, and microplastics. These floating particles play an important role in air–sea gas exchange, biogeochemical cycles, fisheries, and pollutant transport; and how the particles move depends upon what is happening just above, on, or just below the ocean’s surface. During Deepwater Horizon, ocean models tracked how the oil spill was moving; but the spill’s location, magnitude, and depth revealed a need for improved transport modeling, including incorporating parameters for chaotic short-lived and small-scale surface flows or currents. Since then, research on small-scale ocean processes are helping to improve ocean transport predictions (for example, research on surface currents, how oil moves toward shore, and how riverine fronts influence oil transport). Read full article