Utrecht University: Oceanographers win €25.000 Blue-Cloud Hackathon prize

A team of early-career marine scientists, called The Particle Trackers, have paved the way for providing new insights into the way plastic pollution is transported by ocean currents. Competing in the Blue-Cloud Hackathon external link, the team developed a method that connects particle-tracking software to Blue-Cloud’s open-science data platform. This way, data on ocean currents, plastic pollution and aquaculture locations becomes more visible and insightful than ever before.

The hackathon jury were impressed with these results, and awarded the team with the €25.000 first prize. The team was led by Delphine Lobelle, physical oceanographer at Utrecht University.

Aquaculture and marine protected areas
Using this tool, users can gain insight into the dynamics of plastic pollution at sea. The team focused on the Mediterranean Sea, where waters are exposed to plastic pollution from beaches and rivers. Plastic pollution can reach species in aquaculture farms, potentially affecting food safety. On the other hand, aquaculture farming produces plastic pollution as well. Their plastic barriers and nets can degrade over time, releasing plastic particles that potentially reach marine protected areas.

Impact of ocean plastic pollution
Gaining more insights into the complex dynamics of plastic pollution, could help manage and prevent pollution at sea, said Lobelle. The team specifically sees aquaculture farmers and policy makers involved with marine protected areas as end users of their tool. Both groups could learn a lot about plastic pollution dynamics when the team’s method is further developed – and base future decisions on reliable data and simulations. The Particle Trackers team also plan on using the prize to organize outreach events to raise awareness on the impact of ocean plastic pollution.

Extensive framework
The team’s starting point for entering the hackathon was the particle-tracking simulator Parcels external link. This is an extensive open-access framework to simulate the movement of particles in the ocean.

The Blue-Cloud serves as an open-science platform for marine researchers to share data, results, and computing environments. As such, it provides a huge resource for collaborative marine science. Connecting OceanParcels to Blue-Cloud’s inner workings, Lobelle and colleagues managed to combine the best of both worlds to address plastic pollution.

The right approach
The Blue-Cloud jury praised the project for being “the right approach for the right problem at the right time”. During the awarding ceremony, the jury ’s spokesperson further lauded the project. “This stood out for us as something which addressed really two major challenges: how do we feed the world and the really incredible problem that we face in terms of plastics. Tackling socially critical challenges and wicked problems, but also coming with a solution, really engaged us all.”

A taste of application and collaboration
“We were so excited when the Blue-Cloud jury announced that we won”, says Lobelle. “Many early-career ocean professionals I speak to these days crave to apply their knowledge and collaborate to solve ocean challenges. This hackathon gave our team a taste of that.”

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