Sunrise on New Horizon
On Saturday, I had a few spare minutes and decided to read some of the latest news from around the world. A story that caught my eye was about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a large floating pile of garbage that is the target of two research teams who set sail from California in early August. The pile contains particles of plastic, rubber and aluminum, along with discarded fishing nets and all types of land-based debris. This patch is estimated to be the size of Texas. Or twice that size. The scientists aren’t sure how big it is.
I was confused by the lack of a true size estimate. If I can pinpoint my driveway or backyard garden on Google Earth, how hard is it to point a satellite at the Pacific and measure a pile of garbage?
“It’s not like this is an island. It’s not something you can walk on,” said Holly Bamford, director of the Marine Debris Program at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “Sometimes you can cruise along for 10 nautical miles and not see anything and then, bam, you come to a hot spot” of visible trash.
Two teams of researchers are heading to the garbage pile, also known as the North Pacific Gyre, this month to investigate what types of trash are in the ocean and how it is impacting the living neighbors.
For example, scientists are interested in finding out whether zooplankton — microscopic organisms that are a food source for bigger animals — eat the plastics, and whether it is digestible or poisonous for them, [Robert] Knox [deputy director of research for the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego] said.
As of this morning, the Scripps SEAPLEX team is doing 24-hour sampling of the debris they have found, and the Project Kaisei team, who left two days later, are hoping to determine how we can retrieve the debris and possibly recycle it into diesel fuel. Both teams are posting latest developments on their websites, along with using Twitter and Facebook, to provide up-to-the-minute methods of sharing what they learn.
Close up of fish larvae were found growing on the large piece of plastic with the crabs.
Photos from the two research groups shed light on the type of problem we have in the North Pacific Gyre. Unfortunately, this is just one of five “Plastic vortexes“ that are known on Earth. In addition to the North Pacific, there are two in the Atlantic, one in the South Pacific and one in the Indian Ocean.
As depressing as it is to think of that much garbage floating in our oceans, there are things we can do to stop the spread of trash. But because the trash is from multiple countries, it is a true international problem. What can I do in my life to make a difference? Robert Knox gave his recommendation:
“The easiest thing to do to push back against this problem is for people to dispose of plastic properly,” said the Scripps Institution’s Knox. “Just don’t chuck it out by the roadside, because it’s going to go downhill and into the ocean.”
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