SCIENTISTS based in the Highlands are exploring whether thermal imaging cameras can be used to detect plastic pollution from space.

Researchers at the North Highland College UHI’s Environmental Research Institute, based in Thurso and part of the University of Highlands and Islands, were granted more than £100,000 from the European Space Agency to conduct the 18-month project.

The scientists received the funding as part of the agency’s “basic activities call”, which is looking to prepare for the future and find new ways of detecting marine plastic litter.

Paolo Corradi, an engineer at the European Space Agency, led the search for ideas to “improve our understanding of how litter is transported around the world and consequently help to identify plastic sources and sinks”.

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He said: “The projects we selected cover different geographical areas, including places like south-east Asia where the problem of marine litter is huge, and, as well as oceans, they touch upon rivers, seas and even land.

“Every project has the potential to improve our ability to monitor floating plastic from space and thus provide the data necessary to propose appropriate solutions.”

The Thurso study is being led by Dr Lonneke Goddijn-Murphy, a research fellow at the Institute.

She explained: "While satellites have been used to detect marine plastic before, this has relied on optical measures which require daylight.

“Using thermal imaging to record plastic pollution from space is a novel idea which excited the European Space Agency. The concept is based on the idea that plastic can emit different levels of thermal radiation than the water surface."

Dr Goddijn-Murphy has devised a series of experiments to test the technology. She is conducting surveys in the seas around Thurso using drones with thermal imaging cameras.

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The tests will run in both summer and winter conditions. A research team at the University of the Aegean, in Greece, is supporting the study by trialling the technique in a different climate.

"The test results looking promising already," Dr Goddijn-Murphy said. "If we can show that thermal imaging is an effective way to detect marine plastic pollution, the method could be used alongside other remote measurement techniques.

“For example, it could be useful in identifying clear plastics which are hard to spot using optical measures. It could be used to help evaluate litter reducing policies and to help locate sources and pathways of marine plastic litter."