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Advances in Earth Science  2019, Vol. 34 Issue (9): 936-949    DOI: 10.11867/j.issn.1001-8166.2019.09.0936
Research Progress on Source-to-Sink Transport Processes of Marine Microplastics
Xiaodong Zhang(),Zhifei Liu(),Yanwei Zhang,Yulong Zhao
State Key Laboratory of Marine Geology, Tongji University, Shanghai 200092, China
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Microplastics in marine environment are global environmental issue and challenge and have received an extensive international concern. At present, most of researches focus on the investigation of microplastic abundance in the ocean surface water, and there is insufficient understanding of the distribution and transport processes of microplastics in the deep-sea environment. This paper reviewed marine microplastic studies carried out in the last decade, and summarized the source, global distribution and transport processes of microplastics. Field investigations showed that both surface water and water column were important accumulation areas for microplastics, while deep-sea surface sediments were final sinks for microplastic deposition and accumulation. Transport of microplastics to the deep sea included two modes: vertical settlement and lateral transport. Laboratory simulation showed that the sinking rate of microplastic particles in the ocean changed between 300 and 1 000 meters per day, and the sinking process was not solely controlled by particle physical properties such as particle density, but also influenced by ocean dynamic process, biological action and marine snow aggregation. Microplastics deposited on the seafloor could migrate laterally towards the deep sea with resuspended sediments, which were related to internal waves, deep-sea turbidity current or climatic events. However, there remain the key knowledge gaps in uncertain speed and quantity of microplastics moving to the deep sea, which is not conducive to the comprehensive understanding of the microplastic transport process from source to sink. Therefore, it is recommended to observe the vertical sinking flux of microplastics with layered sediment traps in order to study the source-to-sink transport processes of microplastics in deep-sea environment.

Key words:  Microplastics      Transport process      Source-to-sink      Deep-sea environment.     
Received:  19 June 2019      Published:  15 November 2019
ZTFLH:  P76  
Fund: the National Natural Science Foundation of China “Deep-sea sedimentation process and mechanism in the South China Sea”(91528304);The National Key Research and Development Program of China “Evolution of sedimentary environment and paleoclimate of the Sunda shelf in southern South China Sea”(2018YFE0202402)
Corresponding Authors:  Zhifei Liu     E-mail:;
About author:  Zhang Xiaodong (1992-), male, Taian City, Shandong Province, Ph.D student. Research areas include observation on deep-sea sedimentation and transport process.
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Xiaodong Zhang
Zhifei Liu
Yanwei Zhang
Yulong Zhao

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Xiaodong Zhang,Zhifei Liu,Yanwei Zhang,Yulong Zhao. Research Progress on Source-to-Sink Transport Processes of Marine Microplastics. Advances in Earth Science, 2019, 34(9): 936-949.

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Fig.1  Numerical (a) and mass (b) abundance distribution of global plastic debris floating on sea surface[24]
Data were obtained from total 27 floating debris studies with 11 854 surface trawls carried out between 1971 and 2013
Fig.2  Microplastic concentrations varied across sample depths ranging from 5 to 1 000 m, in the offshore waters of the Monterey Bay[40]
Fig.3  Total microplastic concentrations in near-surface waters (4.5 m) of the NE Pacific Ocean[42]
Fig.4  Profile of microplastic abundances and compositions in hadal water (a) and sediments (b) from Mariana Trench[11]
Fig.5  Predicted settling velocities of microplastic particles of different physical characteristics [45]
Short isometric cylinders (red dash-dot curves) were circular rods with diameters equal to the length, approximating the natural grains; Δρ/ρ represent the relative excess densities of particles to seawater
Fig.6  Sea surface (<0.25 m)plastic concentrations influenced by ocean dynamic state[49,50]
(a) Surface plastic concentrations derived from a total of 708 observations, the 24 largest plastic concentration values greater than 4×105 p/km2 are not shown; (b) Regression lines for the observations (red line) and for the large eddy simulations (black lines) of the wave-averaged Navier-Stokes equation, given a terminal buoyant rise velocity as 1.4 cm/s; (c) Surface plastic concentrations of all observations (gray dots) and subsampled observations (black pluses) for 5<U10<7 m/s
Fig.7  Images of marine snows with incorporated polymers and effect on sinking rates[66]
Fig.8  Residence times of high-density benthic marine microplastic pellets in each monitor box of the Nazaré Canyon model simulation[47]
(a) 101-day model run of spring/ summer 2009; (b) 101-day model run of autumn/ winter 2011; Locations of the monitor boxes 1~4 were along the canyon axis
Fig.9  Microplastic content and pathway of sea ice cores in the Central Arctic[75]
(a)Positions of sea ice cores (A~E and Ha~Hd) and a schematic view of surface current systems in the Arctic; (b) Total microplastic particle load; (c) Average % composition of microplastic polymers; (d) Drift trajectories of sea ice cores except core A and Ha
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