Technical note: On the importance of a three-dimensional approach for modelling the transport of neustic microplastics
Understanding and estimating the distribution and transport of microplastics in marine environments has been recognized as a major global research issue. Most of the existing research on transport modelling has focused on low-density particles floating in surface waters, using a 2-D Lagrangian approach and ignoring the vertical displacement of particles. In this work, we evaluate to what extent the vertical movement of particles within surface waters by mixing processes may affect the horizontal transport and fate of microplastics. The aim is to determine whether a 2-D approach is sufficient for the accurate modelling of neustic-microplastics transport or whether a 3-D approach is necessary. For this purpose, we compare visually and statistically the microplastics transport patterns of three simulations in a coastal system: one using a 2-D approach; and two using a 3-D approach with weak and strong vertical turbulence, respectively. The 2-D simulation roughly reproduced the transport and accumulation patterns, but accurate results required a 3-D approach. This was particularly important for strong vertical turbulence and regions characterized by strong vertical current shear. Moreover, a 2-D approach can lead to errors in the results even with negligible turbulence due to simplifications in the velocity field. A 3-D modelling approach is therefore key to an accurate estimation and prediction of microplastics distribution in coastal systems and consequently for planning mitigation and cleaning programmes.