Saturday, February 9, 2008

Day 19 - Sifting the Sahara

Our noon position: Latitude: 36 23.448 North, Longitude: 150 15.747 West

Another travel day, blessedly more gentle than last night – a rough one on the high seas. After a hearty meal of pasta with a tomato-garlic sauce, homemade whole-wheat garlic bread, and green beans, crew retired to our cabins. The Captain ended up pulling most of the night watches – navigating us skillfully through the storm, and letting us sleep (or attempt to) through the tumult.

As for the image here: sometimes sailing is a battle – our crew is always ready for a good “tackle”….

So we’ll continue addressing some of the recent questions posed – several have been repeated, and clearly require some clarification.

The most common: How can we clean this mess up?

From concerned individuals, to those wondering if we might find some economic value in all of this floating plastic debris, people constantly ask if there isn’t some way to scoop, net, or filter this waste out. Its just…..too…..big. It’s like suggesting we sweep the United States. Or sift the Sahara desert. And as people have seen from our sample images, much of this debris is comprised of small pieces – fragments – that require a fine mesh to remove. Which means removing tons of plankton as well – the basis of the entire marine food chain. If only the debris were nicely contained in a big “trash island”, perhaps we could remove it. But it’s spread out over an incomprehensibly huge area. The terms “garbage patch” or “Texas-sized trash heap” conjure up tangible areas, when in fact this “plastic soup” extends throughout the gyre. Add to this the unknowns: how much plastic is building up on the sea floor, becoming incorporated into the benthic environment? Or throughout the water column? Add the sheer expense and difficulty of getting here – and the impossibility of cleaning up the gyre becomes clearer. We need to focus our efforts on prevention, as cleanup is simply not feasible at this time.

To P. Scheuster’s question about the potential health impacts of plastic: Understanding how much trash is out there (approximately 14 million metric tons spread out over 2.5 million square nautical miles), and the reality that it cannot be cleaned up, some still ask, “So what if it’s gross out there? It’s not in my backyard. What’s it got to do with me?” We believe we’ve demonstrated that it’s not only an environmental issue, but it’s also a human health, and tremendous moral issue.

Remember POPs, those persistent organic pollutants that float in the ocean, like DDT, PCBs and PAHs from the incomplete burning of fossil fuels? We recently published a paper “Persistent organic pollutants carried by synthetic polymers in the ocean environment” identifying significant amounts of these POPS sticking onto and being absorbed into plastic particles floating in the North Pacific Gyre. These carcinogenic compounds are not only found in plastic marine debris, but also in the bodies of the animals that consume them. Imagine all those filter feeders, like jellyfish, salps, barnacles, baleen whales, and thousands of different zooplankton, indiscriminately consuming plastic particles and possibly absorbing those POPs. We’ve seen it happen already in several seabirds and some invertebrates. Our organization and many other scientists are discovering that these pollutants and many others bioaccumulate in animal tissues, migrate up the food chain, and are likely to be found in the fish on your dinner plate. Bon appetit!

And of the moral issue? 14 million tons of plastic trash floating in the ¼ of the Pacific we study is not a legacy any of us want to bestow upon future generations. If we can’t clean it up, at least we can stop making it worse.

And a few other comments:

Weeber, yes hold onto those pens! We love hearing from you always.

Raimundo, mil gracias por su apoyo, de Chile! La ayuda graphica es siempre ----- a ver si nos mantenemos en contacto!

Clif, you’re right on in noting that creatures other than Seabirds are likely ingesting plastic. Sea turtles are known to eat plastic bags, mistaking them for jellyfish – often a fatal mistake. Algalita has also documented the ingestion of plastic by Salps and Jellies, and is conducting further research on fish. This coming year, we plan to conduct research on Albatross tissue for evidence of toxicity due to plastic ingestion.

We’re close to our next study area, so should have more research and stories to share soon.

Aloha and gracias from the Captain and crew of the ORV Alguita!


Knucklehead said...

Thanks for addressing the question of cleaning up the plastic mess. I can see now that it would be akin to sifting the Sahara. Good analogy.

lcander said...

That was a good explanation about why we can't clean up the plastic. My high school students have a hard time imagining how big the area is and how the plastic is situated on or in the water. When we first visited your website, several of them asked why we can't just pick it up.

Knucklehead said...

Why couldn't it be possible to collect the larger pieces of trash by skimming the most polluted concentrations with troll nets and attaching them to helicopters which would then deposit them into the path of the ongoing lava flow of Kilauea to be consumed and incorporated into new rock?

Kaisa said...

Do you have specific ideas beyond the obvious "recycle" and "don't litter"?

West Lafayette High School
Grade 9