Can Water Constituents Be Used as Proxy to Map Microplastic Dispersal Within Transitional and Coastal Waters?
Due to high spatiotemporal variability of aquatic systems, relationships between microplastic sources and sinks are highly complex and transportation pathways yet to be understood. Field data acquisitions are a necessary component for monitoring of microplastic contamination but alone cannot capture such complex relationships. Remote sensing is a key technology for environmental monitoring through which extrapolation of spatially limited field data to larger areas can be obtained. In this field study we tested whether microplastic distribution follows the same transport pattern as water constituents depictable from satellite images, namely chlorophyll-a, suspended particulate matter, and colored dissolved organic matter, and discuss their applicability as proxies. As rivers are a major source for marine microplastic contamination, we sampled three example river systems: the lower courses and river mouths of the Trave and Elbe estuary in Germany and the Po delta in Italy. For a full quantitative analysis of microplastics (>300 μm), ATR- and FPA-based μFT-IR spectroscopy and NIR imaging spectroscopy were utilized. Comparing water constituents with in-situ data using regression analysis, neither a relationship for the Elbe estuary nor for the Po delta was found. Only for the Trave river, a positive relationship between microplastics and water constituents was present. Differences in hydrodynamic conditions and spatiotemporal dynamics of water constituents and microplastic emissions among the river systems are possible explanations for the contrary results. Based on our results no conclusions on other river systems and likewise different seasons can be drawn. For remote sensing algorithms of water constituents to be used as microplastic proxy an adaption for each system as well as for different seasons would thus be necessary. The lower detection limit of 300 μm for microplastics could also have influenced relationships as microplastic abundance exponentially increases with decreasing size class. Further studies with improved sampling methods are necessary to assess our proposed method.