Saturday, March 27, 2010

Doldrums of Debris

March 23, 2010 22°31.39S, 91°39.93E
“Hey, there’s a turtle stuck in a ball of net,” someone yelled from the top of the mast, the best place to be for a 360° view of the world for miles. From 150ft up in the air came a barrage of sightings: a shark, two turtles, random large fragments of plastic floating by and one enormous ball of tangled fishing nets and rope. We’re in the Indian Ocean Garbage Patch.

An oceanic garbage patch is an area of relatively dense accumulation of debris, not an island, but a thin soup that’s more concentrated in the 5 subtropical gyres than surrounding waters. Other than the behemoth net ball, or trails of random debris forming wind rows, you usually will see very little with the naked eye. You detect an oceanic garbage patch when you trawl.

We’ve conducted 6 trawls in the last 7 days, each one with plastic debris. Trawls 1-4 had a visible fragment or two floating about. Trawl 5 had a dozen, and trawl 6 had twice more than all others combined (see the photo above).
So if you hold the idea that the solution to the plastic pollution problem is to go to any of the 5 gyres and get it, you’re wasting your time and money. The plastic out here will likely photodegrade and break apart into smaller and smaller fragments. After cycling through untold numbers of marine organisms through filter-feeding or food mimicry, the particles will likely sink to the seafloor, either as fish poop or become encrusted by colonizing critters. They will take their polymer chains and absorbed pollutants to the sequestering grave of deep sea mud.

Solutions to plastic pollution begin on land. More to follow…Video: Entering the Gyre- Crew member, Anna Cummins, scouts for plastic pollution and monitors plastic debris sampling from high up on the mast. She shares observations of increasing quantities of plastic pollution as they enter the Indian Ocean Gyre.


Q: hello, we are the 6 year 7 students from Radford college, Canberra, Australia.our question for you is ' can you tell how long the rubbish has been siting there in the water? If so, how? Thanks and good luck!!!

A: It’s nearly impossible to tell exactly how long debris has been in the water. Sometimes you find a date on the object, like an expiration date on a plastic candy wrapper. Sometimes we assume that the amount of growth on an object, like a cluster of gooseneck barnacles, means it’s been in the ocean for awhile. But plenty of growth can happen in a few months. On our Junkraft expedition ( we observed mature barnacles growing under our raft after 88 days at sea. Sometimes we look at the amount of photodegradation by UV light to tell us that a plastic object ha s been in the sea for a long time. Overall, it’s really difficult to tell

Q: I'm thrilled to hear more about your adventure! Reading things like this makes me want to step outside my house and get straight to recycling. With Nikolai Maximenko's collected data from the 12,000 buoys, i'm curious about whether you plan on recollecting the buoys or leave them wherever they may be. Also, what are the buoys mainly made of? Toni - George Washington High School, Guam

A: The Maximenko Model is a computer simulation based on the data from other drift buoy release studies. Nikolai Maximenko didn’t release any real buoys. He used known drift buoy data, current and wind information to predict where the 5 gyres are. But what happened to the real buoys? Some of them disappear, likely sinking or washing up on shore. They are lost when the electronics inside begin to degrade, lose power or get wet. They are usually made of plastic on the outside, but 100 years ago they were made of wooden barrels or glass spheres. The science of oceanography has come a long way. Today’s buoys usually have information on how to contact the scientist that sent it, and sometimes there is a reward.

Q: Greetings! We are the fifth graders of Rutledge Hall in Lincolnwood, IL, just north of Chicago. We are wondering if you have heard about the green plastic breakthrough at Stanford ( and what yourthoughts are on it. Thanks!

A: Please send me the article and I will tell you what I know. We can’t check the internet from here in the Indian Ocean, only check email. What I do know about green plastics is that some bioplastics are marine degradable. PLA is the most common bioplastic used today. It’s made from corn. It’s not marine degradable, but PHA is. Search “PHA bioplastic” on the net and share with us what you come up with.

Also, there are some technologies creating PET from plant based organic compounds. This is one solution to keep from using fossil fuels to make plastic. At this moment roughly 4% of a barrel of oil becomes plastic, and 3-4% of that barrel is used to make the power consumed to make the plastic. That means 7-8% of a barrel of oil is required to make the plastic 6.5 billion people in the world consume. That’s plenty of oil. Plant-based PET would change that. But plant-based PET is not biodegradable, so it will still persist in the environment if lost.

Q: Im Matt from Faith Lutheran High, Las Vegas. Where are you planning on porting
throughout the trip?

A: Our next port of call will be the island of Mauritius, which is roughly 680 miles east of Madagascar. Can you do me a favor? I need information on the Yellow-nosed Albatross that live on that Island. I need to know where on the island they live. 10 years ago I saw plenty of Laysan Albatross on Midway Atoll, in the Pacific Ocean, full of plastic in their stomachs. Anna saw the same thing on Guadalupe Island, near the Pacific coast of Mexico. We want to find out if Yellow-nosed Albatross are eating plastic as well.

Q: Faith Lutheran High School, Las Vegas Nevada, Senior, Chris. I was wondering what each of you are most hoping to accomplish on this trip, what your most excited to see?

A: We have a couple of research goals in mind. We want to know if there is plastic in the Indian Ocean Gyre, how much there is, and what is it doing to the organisms that live there. We’re also looking at the Maximenko Model that predicts the relative concentrations of debris in the 5 gyres of the world. We are planning to have visited all 5 gyres by May 2011.

What am I most excited to see? I want to learn. I want to see the world outside of my home, city, country. I decided long ago that combining school with travel was the best way to learn about the world. I’m excited to know what I don’t yet know. This is the joy of discovery. Equally as exciting is that I get to share this journey with you.


Jai said...

Hello, Lawndale High, Hawthorne California, 10th grade. My questions are 'Are you collecting the trash, if so what are you planning to do with it?'

Anonymous said...

It appears, the choice is in mankinds hand but some people are simply aiding the numerous amounts of debris we already have in the Gyre. How would you truely feel if your home was simply a center of waste? ~Eric T. a Sophmore at Lawndale High School located in Lawndale California~

Anonymous said...

Lawndale High School,CA,USA,10th grade, Asanti
Q: Why did you and your reserach team choose to investigate the Indian Ocean Gyre than any other Marine related issue, like the unbalance equillibrium of marine ecosytems?

Anonymous said...

When you said, "Solutions to plastic pollution begin on land." do you mean that the only solution to this problem is to use preventative measures in order to avoid further polluting the oceans because there are now way too many small plastic fragments to get rid of? -Godfrey, Sophomore at Lawndale High School in Lawndale, CA