Beneath the Surface is contributed by 2019 NEST Fellows Patrick Chandler and David Oonk—all pictures by the authors.

Most observers see the rivers and streams they interact with on the Front Range only for a few moments at a time and only from the top looking down. Though aware that there is a hidden world underneath the surface, most choose not to consider what lies beneath. The same is true for the way people interact with art and science. In the forums of public engagement, whether in a gallery or poster hall, people stroll through only pausing to ask what is beneath the surface on rare occasions. This project is based on delving into the depths.

In 2017, the Inland Ocean Coalition (IOC) initiated a pilot study and found evidence of microplastics in Boulder Creek and the South Platte River. In 2019, researchers at the University of Colorado and the IOC began the next phase of research to define a methodology and a set of tools that could make microplastics monitoring accessible to citizen scientists around the country and communicate monitoring results through the arts. Microplastics in streams and rivers aren’t visible or tangible to recreational users and few care to open the pandora’s box that leads to questions like, “Is there a place on earth untouched by human impact?” Short answer… No.

So where does that leave us and how do we find hope once the breadth and depth of our impact is fully understood? Art and science may hold the key. Art exemplifies the affective realm of creativity and teaches us that the path forward can be defined by bringing the hopes and dreams of a future that is based on viewing our interaction with the natural world as a relationship and a responsibility rather than a right. Science opens the cognitive realm to the possibilities of what we can invent and learn through research, observation, and ingenuity. Combining these two realms can open the connection between head and heart and unite two realms of creativity that will both be essential to defining a path forward.

In the lab, we are use visual analysis to mark each suspected piece of plastic from our samples, then we confirm whether the particles are plastic using the FTIR microscope.

The present study constitutes Phase II of the Rocky Mountains microplastics survey. Its objective is to identify a single methodology that includes field sampling and laboratory sample processing and is suitable to conduct a broader survey of Rocky Mountain rivers, or riverine systems in general. Rivers are very different from one another, and they present variably over time; the method should allow the survey of a great number of locations, possibly several iterations per location. Studies of such a population benefit from large samples possibly at the cost of detail definition at the data point level. Measurements are never exact, but large samples produce better models. Therefore, criteria for a suitable method are rapidity, good transferability and accessibility to possibly accommodate volunteer involvement in the future, whilst maintaining control over variability between samples.

For field sampling plankton nets have been built from non-plastic materials and will be tested to these criteria. For laboratory sample analysis, visual microscopic examination and Fourier-transform infrared (FTIR) spectroscopy will be examined for efficiency and accuracy.

Geographically, the focus of our work will be Front Range streams and rivers including two sites on the Poudre River, three on the Big Thompson River, and multiple sites on the South Platte River and tributaries and Boulder Creek. Field work began 2019 and is ongoing.

Sometimes, we observed large pieces of plastic floating in the water at our sample sites as we were testing for microplastic.

The ART:
We are working with the Arbor Institute in Boulder to create a multi-modal exhibit focused on plastic pollution. In the summer of 2021, we will display selected photos from our work alongside partnering artists like Kelsi Nagy and Marcus Eriksen who have focused on plastic pollution in India and the open ocean respectively. The idea is to create an exhibit that helps to show the breadth of the plastic pollution issue and show that there are no longer untouched places. This is not to create despair but to push viewers to avoid “othering” environmental issues and show that the world is a closed system.

Along with art focused on plastic pollution, we also plan to dedicate space in the exhibit to pieces that help illustrate how to move from a place of seeing the natural world as a resource to embracing a relationship with the world around us. We hope to move our audience from questions like “what is that river,” to questions like “who is that river.” The goal is show that a path forward must include a shift in attitude and understanding that will lead us to change how we treat the world around us.

David Oonk photographing plastic in Clear Creek.