Friday, February 5, 2010

February 5 “HURRICANE!”

“50 knots!” Anna yelled above the roar of wind and sea spray. It’s 3:00 AM and we’re on watch. Though the center is 800 miles from us, and slowly moving away, we are still feeling high winds along its edge. A couple hundred miles south of us it’s calm, but we need to head northeast. We’ve got a week to go before we reach the Azores. We’re hoping the weather lightens up soon.

Two days ago we completed Trawl 33 at 28N,50W. It was densely packed with sargassum and microplastic particles. Our two primary research goals have been accomplished. First, to document what’s floating on the sea surface in the middle of the North Atlantic Gyre. Second, to collect enough samples to validate computer models that predict the eye of the gyre, where plastic pollution accumulates.

The next watch has taken over the helm. We climb down from the deck soaked from seawater, while the next team ascends into chaos. Sustained 40 knot winds create mountainous seas. I don’t think we’ll put the trawl back in the sea anytime soon.

Replies to student comments and questions

Q: Do you think that plastic in the water can be an influence to the development of red tide algal blooms? From Nick, Senior at River Ridge High School, New Port Richey, Fl.
A: Nick, red tide algal blooms are more likely affected by runoff - nutrients from agricultural fields and urban areas – than plastic. But there are many other environmental problems associated with plastic in the ocean.

Q: How do you find the gyres? Do you hope to see your data change dramatically from your first goyage? Peace, Rachel, 11th grade from River Ridge High School in New Port Richey, Florida

A: Rachel, the gyres have been studied since the beginning of ocean travel – sailors hundreds and hundreds of years ago began figuring out where the currents were traveling to help them navigate. Our techniques have become more sophisticated over time – using satellite technology and tracking devices, we can predict where currents converge, and by extension, where debris might accumulate. This is our first voyage to the North Atlantic, so we’re not sure yet how our data will change. We hope our research will help encourage more solutions.

We came here not knowing exactly what to expect, but we didn’t think we’d find as much plastic as the North Pacific. The North Pacific Gyre is bounded by North America and Asia, regions that are likely contributing huge amounts of plastic debris to the Pacific. So far, what we’ve seen fits this notion – but what’s disturbing to note is that every single sample we’ve collected so far contains plastic. There’s no doubt it’s a problem here. As for fish: we’ve seen many flying fish (some even land in our boat!), many small, deep sea fish in our trawls, a few sunfish, tuna, and Mahi Mahi. When we find a windrow of debris, we often find trigger fish – we even found one the other day living in a plastic bottle! We haven’t seen nearly as many fish as we thought we would though – partly due to overfishing.

Q: Hey, I was just curious as to how the bad weather makes you unable to use your trawl. Is the force of the current too powerful and may break the trawl? I would think that you would probably obtain more plastic samples in a faster current. - Andrew from River Ridge High School in New Port Richey, FL

A: Hi Andrew, As I write this, we’re being slammed by 30-40 mile per hour winds, and our boat is lurching like a bucking bronco! When the winds pick up this much, it creates choppy waves and turbulence that pushes plastic debris below the surface, making trawling difficult. Many kinds of plastics float, but they are very close to the buoyancy of water, and can sink in these heavy seas, beyond the reach of our sampling equipment.

Q: Hello, my name is Micah and I am curious about chemical releases from plastic. Can plastic cause chemical imbalances or other issues in the water? Also what kinds of chemicals or other pollutants can plastics give off? Thank you for you time. River Ridge High School, New Port Richey, Florida. (Grade 12).

A: Hi Micah. As far as I know, no one has looked at chemical imbalances in the ocean due to plastic – but we do know based on other studies that chemicals from plastic – BPA and phathlates for example- can leach into water, so this is a good question. What we do know is that certain chemicals like PCBs, pesticides, and flame retardants that are already in the ocean can stick to plastic particles. These chemicals are “hydrophobic”, meaning they wont mix with water, but they will stick to oily substances like plastic. This can pose problems for the marine foodchain, as many creatures are now eating plastic.

Q: What is the average life span of the animals affected by the plastic products washed out at sea? Will pollution eventually lead to extinction? Beatrix from River Ridge High School in New Pt.Richey Fl.

A: Beatrix, marine animals are affected by plastic in many ways, so their life span depends entirely on how they interact with plastics. For example, they can become entangled in it, like turtles or seabirds getting trapped in plastic nets, or they can ingest it, mistaking plastic trash for food or trying to eat barnacles or fish eggs stuck to the surface. Plastic pollution, along with many other environmental issues like ocean acidification, climate change, biodiversity loss etc. can together create huge problems for humanity in the long term if we don’t start acting now. Your generation will need to step up and get involved, so the more you can learn now, the better!

Q: Hey this is Landan from Mrs. Smith's Marine Bio Class, will this low pressure system delay your time in anyway?

A: Hi Landan, this low pressure system blowing through won’t delay our time – if anything these high winds and heavy seas are pushing us forward. The biggest issue for us now is its interfering with our ability to collect samples!

Q: Hi, my name is Aaron and I am from River Ridge High School in New Port Richey, Florida. I would first like to applaud your work in the environment and wish you good luck and weather in your travels. Secondly, what is the most abundant piece of plastic that you are finding in gyres and do you think the removal of this piece of plastic would significantly reduce the adverse effects of plastic pollution? River Ridge High School/New Port Richey/Florida/Senior/Aaron
A: Hi Aaron, thanks for your good wishes. We’ve only been to two gyres so far – the North Pacific and the North Atlantic, so its hard to say what is the most abundant single item overall. Mostly what we’re seeing here in the Atlantic are finely broken down fragments. We do think that removing single use plastics – the cups, bags, bottles, and plastic packaging that’s designed to be thrown away, could help significantly.


Anonymous said...

My name is Calvin from University High school in U.S.A California. I am in the ninth grade and I want to ask how stong the winds were and how hurricanes affect life underwater.

Anonymous said...

My name is Calvin from University High school in U.S.A California. I am in the ninth grade and I want to ask how stong the winds were and how hurricanes affect life underwater.