Team:University College London/Modelling/OceanModel


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Our Models | Ocean Model | Density Predictions

Ocean Model

The fundamental idea behind our ocean model is the need to understand the movements of microplastics in the North Pacific ‘garbage patch’, so that we might decide how best our Plastic Republic bacteria should be used. Several studies have looked at large scale-movements of marine debris, both in the North Pacific gyre (Kubota 1994 and 2005; Liang, Wei, Zhang, and Huang 2010) and in the wider ocean (Lebreton, Greer, and Borrero 2012; Maximenko, Hafner, and Niiler 2012). We know that plastic debris accumulates in five subtropical gyres (in the North Pacific, the South Pacific, the North Atlantic, the South Atlantic, and the Indian Ocean) and that once in the gyre plastics will circulate for between 4-5 years (McNally, Patzert, Kirwan, and Vastano 1983). Our model, therefore, was written to show movements of microplastics at a smaller scale.

The model shows the microplastics found in a 10 000 m^2 area of water down to a depth of 25m, and their movements over a 12-hour period. These movements are predicted from data on currents taken from Port Allen in Hawaii, using a random weight to take account of differing speeds of movement due to particle density. We used the estimate of 0.116 microplastic particles m^3 (Goldstein, Rosenberg & Cheng, 2012), which for a model of this size means looking at around 29000 particles. An important function of our model is to tell us, as the simulation is running, how often collisions occur between the microplastic particles. The model estimates that significant numbers of collisions will occur only for particles larger than around 10cm^3 – yet microplastics are defined as plastic debris less than 1 mm^3. This tells us that our aggregation strategy will require further thought if we hope to aggregate particles through collision.

The model was written in MATLAB and the currents data on which the model is based was taken from the Hawaii 2011 Current Observation Project of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency of the USA ( We would like to thank Miriam Goldstein of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography for her help in finding gyre data.


Goldstein, M., Rosenberg, M., Cheng, L. (2012) Increased oceanic microplastic debris enhances oviposition in an endemic pelagic insect, Biology Letters 10.1098

Kubota, M. (1994) A mechanism for the accumulation of floating marine debris north of Hawaii, Journal of Physical Oceanography

Kubota, M. (2005) Pleading for the use of biodegradable polymers in favor of marine environments and to avoid an asbestos-like problem for the future, Applied Microbiology and Biotechnology 67; 469-476

Lebreton, L C-M., Greer, S. D., Borrero, J. C. (2012) Numerical Modelling of Floating Debris in the World’s Oceans, Marine Pollution Bulletin 64; 653-661

Liang, H., Wei, H., Zhang, T., and Huang, J. (2010) The Simulation of Marine Plastic Debris Distribution Based on Cellular Automata, 2010 International Conference on Computer Application and System Modelling

Maximenko, N., Hafner, J., Niiler, P. (2012) Pathways of marine debris derived from trajectories of Lagrangian drifters, Marine Pollution Bulletin 65; 51-62

McNally, G., Patzert W., Kirwan Jr, A., Vastano, A. (1983) The Near-Surface Circulation of the North Pacific Using Satellite Tracked Drifting Buoys, Journal Of Geophysical Research 88; 7507-7518