Estuaries as Filters for Riverine Microplastics: Simulations in a Large, Coastal-Plain Estuary

Alexander G. López, Raymond G. Najjar, Marjorie A.M. Friedrichs, Michael A. Hickner, Denice H. Wardrop

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


Public awareness of microplastics and their widespread presence throughout most bodies of water are increasingly documented. The accumulation of microplastics in the ocean, however, appears to be far less than their riverine inputs, suggesting that there is a “missing sink” of plastics in the ocean. Estuaries have long been recognized as filters for riverine material in marine biogeochemical budgets. Here we use a model of estuarine microplastic transport to test the hypothesis that the Chesapeake Bay, a large coastal-plain estuary in eastern North America, is a potentially large filter, or “sink,” of riverine microplastics. The 1-year composite simulation, which tracks an equal number of buoyant and sinking 5-mm diameter particles, shows that 94% of riverine microplastics are beached, with only 5% exported from the Bay, and 1% remaining in the water column. We evaluate the robustness of this finding by conducting additional simulations in a tributary of the Bay for different years, particle densities, particle sizes, turbulent dissipation rates, and shoreline characteristics. The resulting microplastic transport and fate were sensitive to interannual variability over a decadal (2010–2019) analysis, with greater export out of the Bay during high streamflow years. Particle size was found to be unimportant while particle density – specifically if a particle was buoyant or not – was found to significantly influence overall fate and mean duration in the water column. Positively buoyant microplastics are more mobile due to being in the seaward branch of the residual estuarine circulation while negatively buoyant microplastics are transported a lesser distance due to being in the landward branch, and therefore tend to deposit on coastlines close to their river sources, which may help guide sampling campaigns. Half of all riverine microplastics that beach do so within 7–13 days, while those that leave the bay do so within 26 days. Despite microplastic distributions being sensitive to some modeling choices (e.g., particle density and shoreline hardening), in all scenarios most of riverine plastics do not make it to the ocean, suggesting that estuaries may serve as a filter for riverine microplastics.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number715924
JournalFrontiers in Marine Science
StatePublished - Aug 26 2021

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Oceanography
  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Aquatic Science
  • Water Science and Technology
  • Environmental Science (miscellaneous)
  • Ocean Engineering


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