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Inside NOAA's Marine Microplastics Global Database

February 15, 2024

A visualization that displays clusters representing marine microplastics concentration classifications around the world
A visualization that displays clusters representing marine microplastics concentration classifications around the world using records in the Marine Microplastics Database. Credit: NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information.
Data-driven decisions are what everyone wants, but to glean useful insights from data that can inform decisions, the data must be accessible, trustworthy, comprehensive, and meaningfully organized. There is a data portal that meets these requirements for those involved in research about and action to address marine microplastics pollution.

Researchers with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI), the Northern Gulf Institute (NGI), and General Dynamics Information Technology recently published an article about this resource in Nature Scientific Data, The NOAA NCEI Marine Microplastics Database. This data portal provides open access to quality-controlled global microplastics data and information that serves a diverse customer base and facilitates a holistic understanding about this rapidly growing problem.


Microplastics research has seen a recent explosion in activity. In the 40 years between 1964 and 2004, there were about 100 articles published on microplastics. In the five years from 2018 to 2022, there were about 10,000 published articles, with those in 2022 being more than three times that in 2019. This spike in research has, subsequently, resulted in a surge of microplastics data.

Despite this increase in research and data, important aspects about microplastics are not understood well such as its sources, distribution, and impacts. These knowledge gaps stem in part from a lack of accessible, large-scale, long-term, comprehensive microplastics data. Especially lacking is data on the spatial and temporal variability of microplastics needed by numerical modeling to depict their origins, trajectories, and aggregations.

Initial efforts at managing marine debris data – from large size visual surveys to effects of microplastics on marine ecosystems and economies – have lagged far behind the needs of the scientific, education, and decision-making communities.


To help meet the needs for microplastics data to be accessible and meaningfully organized, NCEI started a data stewardship project specifically to obtain, aggregate, and archive global microplastic data in January 2020. In July 2021, NCEI launched their microplastics website that includes user-friendly interfaces for its ArcGIS geodatabase, web portal, and archive with data from 1972 to the present. These microplastic data are collated from large ocean surveys, citizen-science led initiatives, and published literature sources, which provides students, scientists, environmentalists, policy makers, and others, a robust and open access repository for archived information that supports research and management.

The project's ArcGIS geodatabase and web portal address a broad range of user needs, and its archive allows for in-depth exploration and detailed information about individual datasets (metadata) to meet more specific needs of the science community. On the NCEI microplastics website and help pages, users are encouraged to access the geodatabase alongside the archive which contains the data in its original format and units submitted by the data owner.

Since the launch of the database in 2021, there has been an increase in its use and in requests to learn more about the data contained within it, indicating its value to microplastics research, assessment, and management.


To help meet the need for microplastics data to be trustworthy, the team conducts quality assessment and control before any data are served to the public.

While there are currently no uniform standards for microplastic data (e.g., collection, analysis, and reporting), the team is able assess the quality of the study that collected the data. For example, a study assessment would include evaluating the sampling methods and strategy to see if they are clearly defined and reproducible and the procedures used to handle, store, and process samples to ensure no contamination from the field and laboratory. The team assesses if microplastic data contain minimum requirements such as sampling dates, geographic coordinates, mesh size, concentrations, and environmental (e.g., wind conditions) or logistical factors that may affect interpretation of results.

The team also minimizes errors in data entry and spelling with a data submission platform developed by NCEI – Send2NCEI – that allows entry of only certain values and formats. Other quality measures include contacting data submitters if there are ambiguities such as duplicate and outlier data and having curators and subject matter experts check datasets. This process is transparent as the "NCEI Accession No. Link" directs users to the original data package associated with the record that shows how the data were obtained, quality controlled, and processed.

To meet the need for microplastics data to be comprehensive, data submission and inclusion in the database is freely opened to the public. There are no restrictions on where researchers are located and how projects are funded. Data from professional or non-professional scientists (e.g., citizen scientists) are all welcome, and datasets from both published and unpublished sources are accepted. The team obtains microplastic data in two main ways: self-reporting by data owners and emailing solicitation requests to data owners.

So far, * the microplastic database contains over 22,000 microplastic records collated from 66 datasets, all from peer-reviewed published papers from 51 unique lead authors. Data has been collected from local and regional studies in the Artic, Atlantic, Indian, Pacific, and Southern Oceans. Fifty-eight of the datasets were obtained by email solicitations and eight were self-reported. Four of the 66 datasets were collected by citizen science initiatives (The Ocean Race, Adventure Scientists, Surfing for Science, and Oceaneye Association).

*These counts reflect updates provided by the lead author for records, datasets, and unique authors since the article was published.


NCEI is the primary location for global microplastics data and information that are open access, easily discoverable, comprehensive, and quality-controlled; therefore, the team's focus turns to maintenance and improvement. Updates to the website and database are made quarterly, and data are guaranteed to be available for at least 75 years.

To enable a more comprehensive understanding of microplastics in the marine environment, NCEI hopes to include data from other sources such as aquatic animals like shrimps, fishes, whales, among others. Currently, the database contains in-situ measured marine microplastic concentrations collected from the ocean water, sediments, and beaches only.

The entire field of marine microplastics urgently needs standardization in data collection, analysis, and reporting. There are several national and regional initiatives focused on uniform standards and study methods, which are in relatively early stages of development. NCEI aims to facilitate this effort through the aggregation of different microplastics data types and information that can help the research and end-user communities reach a consensus on standards, which will expand sharing, scalability, and utility of microplastic data and support future studies.


The National Centers for Environmental Information is the nation's leading authority for environmental data, managing one of the largest archives of atmospheric, coastal, geophysical, and oceanic research and contributing to the mission of NOAA's National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service with new products and services that enable better data discovery.

The Northern Gulf Institute is a NOAA Cooperative Institute with six academic institutions located across the US Gulf Coast states, conducting research and outreach on the interconnections among Gulf of Mexico ecosystems for informed decision making. One of NGI's four research themes is Effective and Efficient Data Management Systems Supporting a Data-Driven Economy.

By Nilde Maggie Dannreuther and Ebenezer S. Nyadjro with the Northern Gulf Institute, Mississippi State University.