A hot topic: Thurso scientists trial new method of detecting plastic pollution from space

A new study is exploring whether thermal imaging cameras can be used to help detect marine plastic pollution from space. Researchers at North Highland College UHI's Environmental Research Institute in Thurso, part of the University of the Highlands and Islands, have received over £100,000 from the European Space Agency to conduct the 18-month project.

Dr Lonneke Goddijn-Murphy, a Research Fellow at the Institute, is leading the study. She explains: “While satellites have been used to detect marine plastic before, this has relied on optical measures which require daylight. Using thermal imaging to record plastic pollution from space is a novel idea which excited the European Space Agency. The concept is based on the idea that plastic can emit different levels of thermal radiation than the water surface.”

Dr Goddijn-Murphy has devised a series of experiments to test the technology. She is conducting surveys in the seas around Thurso using drones with thermal imaging cameras. The tests will be run in summer and winter conditions as well as by day and night. A research team at the University of the Aegean in Greece is supporting the study by trialling the technique in a different climate.

“The test results looking promising already,” Dr Goddijn-Murphy continues. “If we can show that thermal imaging is an effective way to detect marine plastic pollution, the method could be used alongside other remote measurement techniques. For example, it could be useful in identifying clear plastics which are hard to spot using optical measures. It could be used to help evaluate litter reducing policies and to help locate sources and pathways of marine plastic litter.”

Dr Goddijn-Murphy’s project was funded following a European Space Agency ‘basic activities call’ to prepare for the future and find new ways to detect marine plastic litter. Paolo Corradi, an engineer at the European Space Agency, led the search for ideas. He explains:

“We were searching for novel ideas to detect and possibly measure plastic concentrations, improve our understanding of how litter is transported around the world and consequently help to identify plastic sources and sinks. The projects we selected cover different geographical areas, including places like southeast Asia where the problem of marine litter is huge, and, as well as oceans, they touch upon rivers, seas and even land. Every project has the potential to improve our ability to monitor floating plastic from space and thus provide the data necessary to propose appropriate solutions.

“Most of the current research in the optical domain is focusing on the spectral region, from the visible to the short-wave infrared, while we have only started to explore thermal infrared for remote detection of marine plastic. The goal of the project is to assess if thermal remote sensing can provide us with a new technique to monitor plastic pollution in our seas and coasts, and consequently help the European Space Agency in supporting the countermeasures against this global environmental problem.”