Microplastics pose risk to ocean plankton, climate, other key Earth systems

Back to Resource Library

Mongabay investigation sheds light on the full range of impacts of plastic pollution to ocean plankton, climate, and other key Earth systems.

Abstract: 1) Trillions of microplastic particles in the ocean threaten marine life, from huge filter-feeders to tiny plankton. Although not lethal in the short term, the long-term impacts of microplastics on plankton and marine microbes could disrupt key Earth systems such as ocean carbon storage and nitrogen cycling.

2) Oceans represent Earth’s largest natural carbon store and are crucial to mitigate atmospheric CO2 increase. Carbon taken up by plankton and stored in the deep ocean — known as the biological carbon pump — is a major process in ocean carbon storage. Microplastics may “clog” this pump and slow ocean carbon uptake.

3) Microplastics in marine sediments alter microbial communities and disrupt nitrogen cycling, potentially magnifying human-caused problems like toxic algal blooms. Changes in plankton communities at the ocean surface could exacerbate deoxygenation driven by climate change, starving marine organisms of oxygen.

4) Small plastic particles are impossible to remove from the oceans with current technology, so stopping pollution is a priority. Plastic production continues to soar year-on-year, but a U.N. treaty to address plastic pollution could offer a glimmer of hope that the international community is ready to take action.

Search for additional resources