While taking a break from studying microfiber pollution, Abigail Barrows MPhil ’18 grows oysters on Long Cove Sea Farm in Stonington, Maine. Her work has been featured on Lifetime's Her America series.While taking a break from studying microfiber pollution, Abigail Barrows MPhil ’18 grows oysters on Long Cove Sea Farm in Stonington, Maine. Her work has been featured on Lifetime's Her America series. Credit: Jenny Nelson of Wylde Photography

Working from her coastal home in tiny Stonington, ME and in collaboration with COA marine biology professor Dr. Chris Petersen and research group Adventure Scientists, Barrows led a multi-year, citizen-science study to sample marine environments worldwide.

Marine environment microfiber contamination: Global patterns and the diversity of microparticle origins” (Environmental Pollution, June 2018) reaches the staggering conclusion that all majorAbigail Barrows ’18 led a multi-year study of worldwide microplastic contamination from her home-based lab in Stonington, on Deer Isle, Maine.Abigail Barrows ’18 led a multi-year study of worldwide microplastic contamination from her home-based lab in Stonington, on Deer Isle, Maine. ocean basins are polluted with microplastics, at the rate of one to two dozen particles per liter. This is approximately three orders of magnitude higher than any global models have predicted.

“Our study presents the most comprehensive global study using grab sampling to look at microplastics in the world’s oceans,” Barrows said. “The technique we used has allowed us to capture much smaller pieces of plastic that were often not quantified in studies using trawl nets.”

Some of the particles the study uncovered were polyester microfibers, which may originate predominantly from synthetic clothing and textiles. The long-term health and environmental effects from contamination from microfibers have yet to be determined.

In past studies, smaller-sized microparticles, especially microfibers, have been incompletely collected by trawl samples, Barrows said. These samples were all scooped out of the water by citizen scientists, “a methodology better able to collect smaller sized particles as well as a greater range of microplastic shapes than trawl nets,” she said. “We were finding 77% of those microfibers were between 0.1 and 1.5 mm in size”

Barrows used her partnership with Adventure Scientists to source over 1,300 water samples from around the globe. For four years, one-liter samples from every ocean and each continent, many of them from understudied areas, arrived at Barrows coastal Maine lab.

A bundle of mircofibers found in one of the grab samples taken as part of the multi-year study, “Marine environment microfiber contamination: Global patterns and the diversity of microparticle origins” (Environmental Pollution, June 2018).A bundle of mircofibers found in one of the grab samples taken as part of the multi-year study, Marine environment microfiber contamination: Global patterns and the diversity of microparticle origins” (Environmental Pollution, June 2018).Barrows’ team found that open ocean samples showed consistently higher densities of microfibers than coastal samples, with the highest concentrations found in the polar oceans.

“Consistently we found more microplastics in the open ocean vs. coastal environments, across all of the different ocean basins,” she said. “This finding has been projected by different modeling studies, but our study further confirms it.”

Plastics are some of the most prolific petroleum-based materials manufactured globally, with over 375 million tons produced every year. Bulky plastic waste has long been the focus of public concern, mostly due to its visibility and documented negative effects on animals. Barrows’ study shows that microplastics are just as problematic.

“My hope is that now this is peer reviewed and out in the world, it can have real impact. People can access this data via the Adventure Scientists online data portal and use it as they see fit, whether that’s spearheading a regional plastic reduction bill or increasing their own monitoring efforts with data findings from their area,” she said. “I hope that there are a lot of different outlets for this data now that it’s open access.”

Abigail Barrows MPhil '18 is researching microplastic pollution through her work with Adventure Scientists and College of the Atlantic.Abigail Barrows MPhil '18 is researching microplastic pollution through her work with Adventure Scientists and College of the Atlantic.

More research into the direct effects of microfibers must be done if we are to understand the full extent of such plastics on the health of our oceans, Barrows said. Microfibers are known to be ingested by small marine animals and are slowly working their way up the oceanic food chain. Studies have already found autopsied whales to contain microplastic particles, with others finding micro synthetic fiber particles in 83% of lobsters samples.

“Over 300 marine species have been documented to ingest microplastics, and those are just the species that have been studied thus far,” Barrows said.

Over 1,300 data points from oceans all over the world were registered as part of the work of Abigail Barrows' MPhil '18.Over 1,300 data points from oceans all over the world were registered as part of the work of Abigail Barrows' MPhil '18.S.E. Cathey, a graduate student at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University and member of Adventure Scientists, also collaborated on this study as a lab analyst.

Abby Barrows grew up on in Deer Isle, where Stonington is located, and loved exploring the outdoors from a young age. Her passion for travel brought her to the University of Tasmania, where she earned a degree in zoology with a focus on marine biology. She has been directing microplastic research since 2012, initiating the first baseline data map of microplastic pollution distribution in Maine with MERI and using this research to help push through plastic reduction legislation and the Maine Marine Debris Resolve, approved in March 2016.  

Barrows’ graduate studies at COA have focused on the distribution of microplastics in marine and freshwater environments, the chemistry of microplastics, and the policies surrounding microplastic pollution. In her spare time, Barrows operates an oyster aquaculture farm, Long Cove Sea Farm.

The global microplastic study is one of several research initiatives that Barrows has been involved with in recent years. Her work has also identified plastic pollution in New York’s Hudson River and in popular bottled water brands. She has been featured on Al Jazeera, The Guardian, Canadian Geographic, and more.

The discovery of plastic microfibers as small as 0.1 mm long in oceans around the globe should prompt consumers and manufacturers to consider the impact of their choices, Abigail Barrows MPhil '18 said.The discovery of plastic microfibers as small as 0.1 mm long in oceans around the globe should prompt consumers and manufacturers to consider the impact of their choices, Abigail Barrows MPhil '18 said.College of the Atlantic is the first college in the U.S. to focus on the relationship between humans and the environment. The intentionally small school of 350 students and 35 faculty members offers a Bachelor of Arts degree in human ecology – the study of how humans interact with our natural, social and technological environments. Each student develops their own course of study in human ecology, collaborating and innovating across multiple disciplines. Both The Sierra Club and The Princeton Review named College of the Atlantic the #1 Green College in the United States in 2016 and 2017.