On thermal infrared remote sensing of plastic pollution in natural waters

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Plastic pollution of the world’s natural waters is of growing concern and currently receiving a lot of attention. However, remote sensing of marine plastic litter is still in developing stages. Most progress has been made in spectral remote sensing using visible to short-wave infrared wavelengths where optical physics applies. Thermal infrared (TIR) sensing could potentially monitor plastic water pollution but has not been studied in detail. We applied radiative transfer theory to predict TIR sensitivity to changes in the surface fraction of water covered by plastic litter and found that the temperature difference between the water surface and the surroundings controls the TIR signal. Hence, we mapped this difference for various months and times of the day using global SST (sea surface temperature) and t2m (temperature at 2 m height) hourly estimates from the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF), ERA5. The maps show how SST t2m difference varied, altering the anticipated effectivity of TIR floating plastic litter remote sensing. We selected several locations of interest to predict the effectivity of TIR sensing of the plastic surface fraction. TIR remote sensing has promising potential and is expected to be more effective in areas with a high air-sea temperature difference.
Original languageEnglish
Article number2159
Pages (from-to)1-11
Number of pages11
JournalRemote Sensing
Issue number18
Publication statusPublished - 17 Sept 2019


  • plastic litter
  • thermal infrared
  • natural waters
  • pollution


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