Saturday, February 16, 2008

Our New Oceans

We have mentioned, before, the vast floating wasteland of plastic debris-- fairly recently described as "twice the size of Texas"-- that has accumulated in the North Pacific subtropical gyre. I still encourage anyone to read the long Best Life Magazine article at that link, but not if you're already at the edge of despair today.

Turns out, not surprisingly, that our ocean garbage dump has continued to grow since that article was published. It's now twice the size of the United States, as also blogged at Daily Kos by FishOutofWater. From the Independent article linked above:

About one-fifth of the junk – which includes everything from footballs and kayaks to Lego blocks and carrier bags – is thrown off ships or oil platforms. The rest comes from land.

The garbage soup, which floats in a becalmed area of ocean normally avoided by boats, was discovered in 1997 by Charles Moore, an oceanographer and heir to a large oil fortune who “subsequently sold his business interests and became an environmental activist.”

The research vessel “Alguita” is currently exploring the Garbage Patch, and keeping a frequently-updated blog of their observations. From Feb. 10’s post:

Clear skies and gentle seas made debris watch a much more appealing activity, and drew the crew with nets, cameras, and binoculars to the bow. For a solid two hours, we fished as fast as we could, pulling up floats, toothbrushes, plastic and glass bottles, a golf ball, a billiard ball, an unused glue stick for a hot glue gun, and several rope boluses filled with crabs and tiny striped fish - But most appalling was the plastic confetti. An endless stream of delicate, white snowflakes, like plastic powder coating the ocean’s surface. This, remarked Charlie, is indicative of the gyre, “where the trash comes home to roost and degrade…..”. A school of cavorting dolphins lightened the mood - the first Charles has spotted in his 10 years of visiting the gyre.

Our Manta sample mirrored what we observed – a bowl full of plastic, with almost zero evidence of life. We wouldn't be surprised if the plastic to plankton ratio here was 100 to 1. The contrast between this “clean” sample and the mass of zooplankton from the other day was remarkable, illustrating the dramatic range in biological productivity throughout the ocean.


In more bad ocean news, yesterday’s Los Angeles Times reports on growing “dead zones” off Oregon and Washington, likely a result of climate changes that in turn affect winds and currents.

Peering into the murky depths, Jane Lubchenco searched for sea life, but all she saw were signs of death.

Video images scanned from the seafloor revealed a boneyard of crab skeletons, dead fish and other marine life smothered under a white mat of bacteria. At times, the camera's unblinking eye revealed nothing at all -- a barren undersea desert in waters renowned for their bounty of Dungeness crabs and fat rockfish.

"We couldn't believe our eyes," Lubchenco said, recalling her initial impression of the carnage brought about by oxygen-starved waters. "It was so overwhelming and depressing. It appeared that everything that couldn't swim or scuttle away had died."

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