Tiny water-walking bugs provide scientists with insights on how microplastics are pushed underwater

Microplastics are tiny plastic particles that can cause big problems when they enter the water supply. One way my fluid dynamics lab explores microplastic movement is by studying how tiny water-walking insects are pushed underwater by raindrops.

Exposure to microplastic pollution can pose health risks, such as respiratory and digestive problems, increased risk of diabetes and disrupted sleep. But physicists like me can study how they move through water to learn how to clean them up.

Water striders are tiny insects that can walk on water. They’re abundant in humid, rainy areas, and some species go their entire lives without ever touching land. Raindrops can weigh more than 40 times a water strider, and during storms they occasionally strike striders directly. The drops form a tiny crater under the surface of the water that envelops the strider before jettisoning it out as the crater collapses back to the surface.

The water striders have strong exoskeletons that allow them to survive being hit by a raindrop. Because these insects are water-repellent and very lightweight, they usually bounce right back. But sometimes the raindrops will form a second, smaller crater right below the surface. The second crater usually forms from a large, fast drop.

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