Floating Sensors Predict Plastic on Galapagos Beaches


Physicists Stefanie Ypma and Erik van Sebille are developing an app that tells park rangers on the Galapagos Islands where they can clean up plastic every day.

The researchers use drifters, or ‘floating sensors’, to create a model of the complicated ocean currents in and around the archipelago. The first batch of drifters was put to sea from a boat this week. The location of the drifters can be followed live on an interactive map external link. The project is part of the Plastic Pollution Free Galapagos external link collaboration with the Galapagos Conservation Trust and partners.

“We’d originally planned on travelling to the Galapagos Islands to deploy the drifters last autumn”, Stefany Ypma explains. “But we couldn’t go to the islands ourselves because of the pandemic. It turned out to be much more complicated than we’d imagined to arrange for the drifters to end up in the right place. I spent weeks sending e-mails and making telephone calls.”

After months of administrative detours, the time has finally come to put the drifters out to sea. “This is a really important moment for the project: now we can actually start collecting data. It’s a bit of a pity that we can’t be there in person, but fortunately we’re getting help from Inti Keith from the Charles Darwin Foundation, who is on location on the islands. She’s making sure the drifters end up in the sea. I’ve drawn up a map of the most suitable locations for releasing the drifters, so it’s just a matter of turning on the drifter and throwing it overboard. Preferably in pairs, because it’s interesting to see how far away from each other the two drifters end up. That distance is an important ingredient in our model.”

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