Building a Global Observing System for Marine Debris: The IMDOS Initiative

14 August 2023

The marine pollution problem may have only started in the 1950s, but it is already impacting every part of our ocean. Now, by harmonizing data, standardizing monitoring methods, leveraging technology, and harnessing the power of a global community, the Integrated Marine Debris Observing System (IMDOS) aims to support and strengthen marine debris research and inform action to tackle this growing global problem.


When plastic came into our lives in the 1950s, it was a revolution. “When I was a student, I remember this slogan – plastic saves our trees! We don’t need to cut down our trees because now we have this safe, good, and healthy material,” says Dr Nikolai Maximenko (International Pacific Research Center, University of Hawaii). Today, hardly a week goes by when the news doesn’t include a story about how this durable, cheap, malleable material may not be as safe, good, and healthy as we thought.


“It is everywhere, but while scientists estimate we are adding an order of 10 million tonnes of plastic every year to the ocean,” says Maximenko, “and we expect to see accumulations of huge amounts, the maximum that we can derive from our observations is well below 1 million tonnes. So where is it all?”


Knowing where plastic is, where it comes from, and how it interacts with winds, currents, and marine life is vital for developing policies and actions to tackle this global issue. “Maximenko and his collaborator shared a vision of a community working together to create a global observing system for marine debris,” says Dr Artur Palacz (Institute of Oceanology, Polish Academy of Sciences, and project officer at the International Ocean Carbon Coordination Project). The Integrated Marine Debris Observing System (IMDOS) has brought that vision to life.



Born out of collaboration

IMDOS has been developed as a joint project between the Group on Earth Observations (GEO) Blue Planet Initiative, the Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS) and the UNEP Global Partnership on Plastic Pollution and Marine Litter (GPML). An Interim Steering Committee, which includes Maximenko, is guiding its development. Supported by funding from the European Union through the EU4OceanObs and H2020 EuroSea, Palacz, alongside Dr Audrey Hasson (Mercator Ocean International/GEO Blue Planet) and Dr Mine Tekman (Consultant for GEO Blue Planet), is acting as coordinator for IMDOS.


Although still in the early stages of development, IMDOS is already collaborating to bolster policy and actions. “Within the European Union, we’re working very closely with the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) Technical Group on Marine Litter to guide and coordinate our monitoring efforts,” says Palacz. On a global scale, IMDOS started to engage with many groups and organizations to deliver the data and information needed to strengthen scientific knowledge of marine debris pollution, contributing to the Sustainable Development Goals and the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development.


The challenge of monitoring plastic

“Plastic is probably the most difficult substance we have ever measured. There are so many different chemical polymers, shapes, and forms, and its market is constantly changing,” says Maximenko. Such aspects as size, chemistry, and even colour can influence how plastic impacts maritime activities and ecosystems.


The tools for capturing information on marine plastic are many, ranging from citizen science initiatives to technological solutions such as satellite remote sensing and remotely operated vehicles (ROVs). “Satellites can give us global coverage, but only of what is floating on the surface of the ocean,” says Palacz, noting that only large debris or debris rafts are currently detectable from satellites. ROVs can reveal amounts and types of plastic lying on the bottom of the ocean, but dedicated plastic sampling missions are few.


Technological advancements are on the horizon. For example, the European Union Agency for the Space Programme recently held a prize contest looking for ways to leverage the EU’s Earth Observation and Global Navigation Satellite System to detect and monitor marine plastics. Alongside supporting technological development, IMDOS also wants to tap into the sampling power of different communities.



A harmonized approach to a global monitoring challenge

GOOS, we say ‘measure once, but use multiple times’,” says Palacz. “We are working with different communities of practice who conduct, for example, coastal biodiversity observations. In many cases, the same groups or the same platforms could measure a few things at the same time. Sometimes it takes adjustments in sampling protocols and so on to make it work, but there is a lot of untapped? potential for integrated observations.”


IMDOS is also working with partners such as the Ministry of Environment Japan to harmonise data and standardise monitoring methods, allowing data from multiple sources to be comparable and accessible (see upcoming workshop). Such an approach can, for example, enhance research and decision-making as well as provide data that can be integrated into a Digital Twin of the Ocean for marine litter. “This is what we are trying to facilitate by having marine debris recognised as a new Essential Ocean Variable by the GOOS Steering Committee,” says Palacz.


For both Palacz and Maximenko, however, IMDOS is much more than observation and monitoring systems. “IMDOS is a unique opportunity to bring everybody working on the different aspects of plastic pollution together,” says Maximenko. “None of the things that IMDOS will achieve will be possible without the work of individuals,” says Palacz. “IMDOS is one of the best examples of teamwork I’ve seen.”



Useful links:

Peer-reviewed paper about IMDOS: Toward the Integrated Marine Debris Observing System

International Marine Debris Data Harmonization Workshop, Japan 2023

GEO Blue Planet Working Group on Marine Litter

The Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS) website

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