Modeling submerged biofouled microplastics and their vertical trajectories

Fischer, Reint; Lobelle, Delphine; Kooi, Merel; Koelmans, Albert; Onink, Victor; Laufkötter, Charlotte; Amaral-Zettler, Linda; Yool, Andrew; van Sebille, Erik (2022). Modeling submerged biofouled microplastics and their vertical trajectories. Biogeosciences Discussions Copernicus 10.5194/bg-2021-236

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The fate of (micro)plastic particles in the open ocean is controlled by physical and biological processes. Here, we model the effects of biofouling on the subsurface vertical distribution of spherical, virtual plastic particles with radii of 0.01–1 mm. For the physics, four vertical velocity terms are included: advection, wind-driven mixing, tidally induced mixing, and the sinking velocity of the biofouled particle. For the biology, we simulate the attachment, growth and loss of algae on particles. We track 10,000 particles for one year in three different regions with distinct biological and physical properties: the low productivity region of the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, the high productivity region of the Equatorial Pacific and the high mixing region of the Southern Ocean. The growth of biofilm mass in the euphotic zone and loss of mass below the euphotic zone result in the oscillatory behaviour of particles, where the larger (0.1–1.0 mm) particles have much shorter average oscillation lengths (< 10 days; 90th percentile) than the smaller (0.01–0.1 mm) particles (up to 130 days; 90th percentile). A subsurface maximum concentration occurs just below the mixed layer depth (around 30 m) in the Equatorial Pacific, which is most pronounced for larger particles (0.1–1.0 mm). This occurs since particles become neutrally buoyant when the processes affecting the settling velocity of the particle and the motion of the ocean are in equilibrium. Seasonal effects in the subtropical gyre result in particles sinking below the mixed layer depth only during spring blooms, but otherwise remaining within the mixed layer. The strong winds and deepest average mixed layer depth in the Southern Ocean (400 m) result in the deepest redistribution of particles (> 5000 m). Our results show that the vertical movement of particles is mainly affected by physical (wind-induced mixing) processes within the mixed layer and biological (biofilm) dynamics below the mixed layer. Furthermore, positively buoyant particles with radii of 0.01–1.0 mm can sink far below the euphotic zone and mixed layer in regions with high near-surface mixing or high biological activity. This work can easily be coupled to other models to simulate open-ocean biofouling dynamics, in order to reach a better understanding of where ocean (micro)plastic ends up.

Item Type:

Journal Article (Original Article)


08 Faculty of Science > Physics Institute > Climate and Environmental Physics
10 Strategic Research Centers > Oeschger Centre for Climate Change Research (OCCR)

UniBE Contributor:

Onink, Victor, Laufkötter, Charlotte


500 Science > 530 Physics








Charlotte Laufkötter

Date Deposited:

05 Apr 2022 18:22

Last Modified:

05 Dec 2022 16:17

Publisher DOI:





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