Scientists have developed a tool capable of predicting, using artificial intelligence, where and when plastic waste floating in the ocean will end up on the Galapagos Islands, whose unique ecosystem in the world is threatened.
Each year, more than eight tonnes of plastic waste is collected on the beaches of this isolated archipelago in the Pacific Ocean, located 1,000 km from the coast of Ecuador, said Stephanie Ypma, researcher at the University of Utrecht ( Netherlands), during the assembly of the European Geosciences Union which is taking place this week in virtual.
The waste comes from the American continent and huge international fishing fleets. Pushed by the sea currents, they run aground on the beaches of these islands classified as World Heritage by Unesco, which are home to a unique fauna in the world (giant turtles, iguanas …).
This pollution represents a “major threat to wildlife”, because the plastic micro-particles often end up in the stomachs of animals, said the scientist.
A threat all the more worrying that the pollution is underestimated: only a tiny proportion of the coasts (1%) are the object of a cleaning, “therefore there is probably much more than eight tons of waste”, a underlined Stephanie Ypma.
The Utrecht Institute for Oceanographic and Atmospheric Research has therefore developed a digital tool to “optimize” cleaning, which is impossible to carry out on the entire Galapagos coast due to lack of financial resources.
Initiated by the Galapagos Conservation Trust, an animal welfare organization based in the United Kingdom, it aims to locate upstream the arrival of waste on the coast, in order to target the most polluted points and the most accessible for cleaning.
The simulation tool, similar to an animated weather map, shows how plastic floats on the ocean and moves towards the land. It integrates multiple parameters (oceanic flows, composition of plastic particles, etc.) into a database and performs its calculations using machine learning.
At the same time, floating sensors equipped with GPS make it possible to measure the movement of water towards the Earth, a process that is still poorly understood. The data from this observation campaign, scheduled for the summer, will then be combined with artificial intelligence simulations to provide a reliable forecast.
“Our first results are promising”, assured the researcher, who hopes that this model can be used to fight against pollution on other islands of the Pacific.