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Defining (and Recycling?) the Plastic Patch

No ocean story has gotten more attention in the past couple years than the big (size of Texas!) garbage patch swirling around the North Pacific. Discovered just over ten years ago by my friend Captain Charles Moore, as he innocently steered his way back home from Hawaii after a sailing race, the patch’s press has prompted all sorts of inquiries about where it came from and how it might be cleaned up. The most interesting queries I get – often from people in the outdoor industry who already use plastic in their products, ranging from flip-flops to fleece – is how the patch might be scooped up and recycled. The best explanation I’ve read was this, from the Washington Post’s Green Lantern, written by Nina Shen Rastogi:

“(We) always thought the Garbage Patch was a huge, waterborne landfill — sort of like a massive hair clog in a big drain. In reality, it’s not so much an island of trash as a thin, soupy area of litter, mostly in the form of tiny flecks of plastic, studded here and there with old fishing gear and children’s toys. Even if you were to sail right through the Patch, the water probably wouldn’t look too remarkable, unless you scooped some up and looked at it closely. So cleaning this part of the ocean isn’t as simple as you might imagine.

“Because the trash is so dispersed, it’s not like we can just steer a big ship out to sea and pick up the Garbage Patch. Collecting all those small fragments of plastic would be extremely expensive. Plus, thanks to a variety of factors — from winter storms to El Niño — the Garbage Patch moves, making it hard to target effectively. Finally, in gathering up those little scraps, you also run the risk of catching — and killing — any marine animals living amid the debris, many of which are the same size as the plastic bits.

“For all these reasons, most organizations stress that the best way to keep oceans clean is to prevent garbage from getting there in the first place. (We) know of one group that’s actively testing methods for removing trash from the open seas: the San Francisco- and Hong Kong-based Project Kaisei. In the expeditions it is planning for 2010, Project Kaisei will focus on picking out big, derelict fishing nets, which can snare marine life in a process known as “ghostfishing.” It’s also planning to use modified purse seines — large nets used by commercial fishing operations — to collect the medium-sized pieces of garbage floating near the surface of the water. Finally, the project will continue to experiment with methods of gathering the smaller bits of debris.

“Kaisei — which receives some of its funding from a recycling trade organization — is also looking for ways to squeeze value from the trash it collects. Currently, the group is focusing on methods that use pyrolysis — in which heat is used to break down materials in the absence of oxygen — to transform the collected waste into fuel. Some experts, however, are skeptical that this particular solution will make economic sense.

“Meanwhile, we ought to know a lot more about the Garbage Patch before making a decision as to whether large-scale cleanup operations are viable or even warranted. There are still a lot of basic questions that remain unanswered. For example, no one has accurately estimated how much garbage enters the ocean each year. And despite the oft-repeated claim that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is “twice the size of Texas,” we don’t really know the exact size of the Patch or how much garbage it contains.

“Nor do we fully understand the precise impact of ocean trash. It’s possible that, when all is said and done, we’ll decide it’s better to leave the Patch alone, rather than bringing all those bits and pieces back on land and dealing with a brand-new disposal headache. (Particularly when you consider all the emissions associated with fueling collection vessels.) Scientists do know that the marine debris can entangle or otherwise harm sea life: For example, animals may eat the garbage, which can not only lacerate their throats and stomachs but can also make them feel so full that they stop eating actual food. But it’s hard to say with certainty exactly how many animals are killed this way. Some of the garbage patches in the Pacific have more teeming ecosystems than others , whereas the larger Garbage Patch itself (the area between California and Hawaii) is a relative dead zone, biologically. However, no matter where debris resides, it can pose a threat to wide-foraging seabirds such as the albatross. And, because garbage patches move, they can also sweep trash onto land, endangering shore animals such as seals.

“There are even more questions about the risks posed by those tiny bits of plastic. It’s well-established that plastic can absorb certain toxic pollutants such as PCBs and DDT, and that those pollutants — if absorbed into an animal’s fat tissues — can work their way up the food chain. But according to Miriam Goldstein, who served as principal investigator on a recent expedition to the Garbage Patch, we can’t yet draw any firm conclusions about the plastic’s effects on human health. For example, while we do know that some fish species are eating these specks of plastic, we don’t know whether they’re doing so in numbers. We also don’t know whether ingesting bits of polluted plastic is enough to transfer those toxins from the plastic into the fish’s fatty tissues. (For that matter, there’s already plenty of PCBs and DDT in the water itself, so even if we could remove all the plastic from the ocean, we wouldn’t necessarily be fixing the toxic fish problem.)

“None of this is to say that plastic in the oceans shouldn’t be an area of concern. But unless the flow of garbage is stanched at the source, cleanup can only ever be a temporary solution.”

Across the Drake Passage, Day 1

The sky is gray, the air filled with a brisk wind and salt spray. A perfect day just south of Cape Horn. We are halfway across the Drake Passage and what is frequently called the windiest-place-on-earth is amazingly – and thankfully – calm. The gray/black seas are lumpy, the peaks of the waves tinged by white, but hardly the six to twenty foot seas that are common out here. A couple dozen albatross and petrels soar just overhead. We are about a third of the way — two hundred miles — into the crossing from Ushuaia, Argentina to the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula and, fingers-crossed; it appears we have dodged a bullet weather-wise. I’ve crossed the Drake dozens of times, always with a fair amount of trepidation. While big seas often equal good adventure, and I have nothing against adventure, but they can also be more than a little intimidating. And living without intimidation is a new goal of mine!

By midday tomorrow we should be taking footsteps on an island off the tip of the Peninsula.

I’ve been to Antarctica a couple dozen times; this trip is momentous because my introduction to the seventh continent was exactly twenty years ago right now, as part of my friend Will Steger’s Transantarctic Expedition. TAE, the last expedition ever by dog on the continent, was a big one: An international team of six men and thirty-six sled dogs spent 221 days on the ice, traveling 3,741 miles across the continent, from the tip of the Peninsula to the South Pole, across the Area of Inaccessibility to the far eastern edge. Among the expeditions many firsts and lasts, the spot on the frozen sea ice where that it began, near small black peaks known as Seal Nunataks off the tip of the Peninsula, is today open ocean. The ice where a Twin Otter from King George Island dropped the team has broken up and drifted off towards South America. What was then frozen sea guarding and protecting Antarctica’s glaciers – part of the Larsen B ice shelf – largely disappeared in 2002.

When it comes to traveling along the Peninsula it’s all about the ice. Each season the ice here is different. As the air and sea temperatures have warmed along the Peninsula – on average by five to nine degrees Fahrenheit, the greatest increase on the planet — the ice freezes later, melts earlier. But as I say, each season is different and I’m very curious to see what it looks like this year. What I’ve been hearing from friends who’ve already been to the Peninsula this early austral summer, they report seeing more snow and less snow, colder air than usual and many blue-sky days.

We are about to cross the Antarctic Convergence, an invisible line on the map between South America and Antarctica that indicates you’ve crossed into true southern territory and air temperatures drop fast. Despite the cold I’m going to try and spend as many hours outside today as possible, basking under the gray skies and in the salt spray, both of which remind me – always – of closing in on Antarctica.

Galapagos, in Photos

Like so many parts of our still-protected world, in Galapagos it is sometimes easy to get swamped by what’s gone wrong with the place and overlook its uniqueness. Our new film, “What Would Darwin Think,” attempts to show both. Obviously the close to 200,000 tourists who arrive each year are coming for good reason – Galapagos offers the most spectacular glimpse of biodiversity on the planet. Albatross, boobies, finches and mockingbirds; iguanas, tortoises and penguins; sharks, dolphins and hundreds of species of fish. And more. Everywhere – everywhere — you look.

While I’ve been focused these past couple weeks on some of the ills besetting this truly special place – too many tourists, too many locals, shark finning, sea cucumber poaching, etc. — I’ve just put up some reminders of why Galapagos is such a draw. Photo galleries from Santa Cruz are up now: A peek at the natural world archives at the Charles Darwin Center; a look at local’s life and tourist life; the fish market and some of the incredible beauty. During the week we’ll add more photos from Santa Cruz, of Sea Shepherd’s operation and a recent protest by tourist operators plus beauty shots from seven more islands – Bartolome, Espanola, Fernandina, Isabella, North Seymour, Plaza and Santiago. If you can think of a place with more creatures per square meter … let me know.