Thursday, October 25, 2012

Check it out!: A firsthand look at the Giant Pacific Garbage Patch

Kim McCabe is a Visitor Education Specialist at the New England Aquarium. She is currently onexpedition in the mid-Pacific ocean studying plastic debris and its impact on the marine ecosystem. This is her introductory post as she heads out on expedition. Real time updates from this expedition will be posted on the Plastics At Sea: North Pacific Expedition website.

Take a look around you... Most of what we eat, drink and use is made of or packaged in plastic. This versatile, durable and inexpensive material has become an important part of our daily lives. Unfortunately, because of their over-use, improper disposal and slow degradation, plastics have also become a ubiquitous presence in the world’s oceans. [As previously reported in Aquarium blog entries from Fiji, the Bahamas and Indonesia.]

A piece of plastic floating through a coral reef in Raja Ampat, Indonesia (photo: Greg Stone)
Originally posted in this entry.

So is there really an island of trash--twice as big as Texas!--floating in the mid-Pacific gyre? Well... Turns out the term “garbage patch” is very misleading. A majority of the floating debris is smaller than your pinky nail and therefore can’t be seen from the deck of a moving ship [This post describes those small pieces of plastic as nurdles].

But just because the plastic pieces are small doesn’t mean it’s not a HUGE problem! What happens when marine life, from plankton to seabirds and whales, ingest these indigestible plastic morsels? How can we clean up our mess when it has incorporated itself into the planktonic community?

Currently, the extent of plastic debris in the oceans is poorly defined and more rigorous research is needed to define the scope of the problem, engage the public in conversation, and influence policy to find long-term solutions.

The RV Robert C. Seamans

This fall, I am joining a team of scientists, sailors, and concerned citizens on a research expedition into the “Giant Pacific Garbage Patch” to tackle tough questions about the impact of this long lived pollutant. We will spend 39 days sailing the Robert C. Seamans from San Diego to Honolulu collecting samples to determine not only how much plastic is polluting the Pacific, but also how it impacts marine life.

What are our objectives?
  • Estimate total plastic concentrations in the upper ocean using subsurface samples along with numerical modeling.
  • Investigate the community of microorganisms inhabiting the plastic debris (known as the “Plastisphere”).
  • Determine whether floating plastic acts as a vector for potentially invasive or pathogenic species to spread to new areas.
  • Survey for Japanese tsunami debris and predict its arrival on US shorelines.

Through these entries and outreach programs we will ensure that the outcomes of this expedition reach far beyond the deck of our ship!

Want to know more? Or are you just curious about what it’s like to live aboard a 135 foot sailing research vessel for 39 days without TV, internet or even a glimpse of land? Well, it turns out that bandwidth from the mid-Pacific ocean is limited and expensive, so I will not be posting from the boat, but I will be posting details here after I return.

In the meantime, John Waterman, journalist for National Geographic, and other crew members will be blogging thoughts, pictures, and videos throughout the expedition. I encourage you all to follow our voyage at the Plastics At Sea: North Pacific Expedition website.

Bon Voyage!
Kim McCabe

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