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Concentration Depth Profiles of Microplastic Particles in River Flow and Implications for Surface Sampling

Cowger, Gray, Guilinger, Fong and Waldschläger
April, 2021

River flow is a major conveyance of microplastic (1–5000 μm) pollution from land to marine systems. However, the current approaches to monitoring and modeling fluvial transport of microplastic pollution have primarily relied on sampling the surface of flow and assumptions about microplastic concentration depth profiles to estimate the depth-averaged concentration. The Rouse profile was adapted to show that fluvial transport of microplastic pollution includes all traditional domains of transport (bed load, settling suspended load, and wash load), as well as additional domains specific to low-density materials with rising velocities in water (rising suspended load and surface load). The modified Rouse profile was applied to describe the positively buoyant particle concentration depth profiles and compared to field observations to showcase the utility of this approach. A procedure was developed for assessing the uncertainty and bias from using a surface sample to estimate the depth-averaged concentration while assuming either surface load or wash load concentration depth profiles. Both assumptions may introduce a large amount of uncertainty due to the range of suspended microplastic concentration depth profiles. Monitoring microplastic pollution and estimating the depth-averaged concentration of microplastics in fluvial systems would further benefit from broader adoption of depth-integrated sampling, characterization of particle concentration depth profiles, and estimation of uncertainties in depth-averaged concentration based on the sampling approach.