Sunday, February 5, 2012

An ocean of plastic

There are five major oceans in the world. There's the Arctic Ocean, the Atlantic Ocean, the Pacific Ocean, the Indian Ocean and the Southern Ocean. In the Pacific, the Atlantic and Indian oceans there are huge circular currents called gyres. The Indian Ocean has a single gyre, while the Atlantic and the Pacific have two, one in the northern hemisphere and one in the southern hemisphere.

The five great oceanic gyres showing the direction of rotation
The northern hemisphere gyres rotate in a clockwise direction, while the southern hemisphere gyres rotate in an anti-clockwise direction. The direction of rotation has to do with the Coriolis effect, which is what people joke about when the say that water goes down plug-holes in different directions in Europe compared to Australia. The Coriolis effect doesn't matter too much for water going down plug-holes (other forces are far more important), but operating over long time periods and over large distances it produces gyres.

Because the gyres rotate they are good at accumulating floating items in their centres. Waste material is drawn into the gyres from the countries that surround the gyre. When the waste reaches concentrations that are significantly higher than the rest of the World's oceans that area of ocean is termed a garbage patch. So far surveys have found garbage patches in the North Pacific, North Atlantic and Indian Ocean gyres. Garbage patches also form in other places, but the oceanic gyres form the biggest patches.

Of all the garbage patches the North Pacific gyre is the largest by a considerable margin. Mainland Australia has an area of 7.69 million square kilometres and estimates of the size of the North Pacific Garbage Patch are as high as 15 million square kilometres. So, basically there's a patch of garbage that could cover an area almost twice the size of Australia floating in the North Pacific. It should be noted, however, that other estimates are considerably smaller. Estimates vary largely because different studies use different densities of debris to define what a garbage patch is.

Plastic particles hanging underwater in the North Pacific garbage patch (photo Scripps Oceanography).
The garbage patches collect a huge array of debris and chemical waste. A lot of it, about 80%, comes from land-based sources. Natural disasters, such as a tsunami or a hurricane can lead to large amounts of waste entering the sea. However, the most common route is through storm water and waste water inputs. The other 20% of waste is lost or deliberately dumped from ships at sea. Although it has been illegal to dump waste at sea for the last 20 or so years, the law is almost impossible to enforce.

By far the most common thing found in the garbage patches is plastic. Mostly it's small particles of plastic, but sometimes very large items like fishing nets that are kilometers long can be found. The fact that it is mostly plastic is pretty amazing seeing as plastic has only become common since the Second World War. But the plastic is able to accumulate because, unlike many other type of rubbish that finds its way into the sea, there are very few organisms that can break it down.

A ghost net floating in the North Pacific garbage patch (photo Scripps Oceanography).
Plastic has a number of negative effects on marine animals. Probably the effect that most people would be familiar with is that large items of plastic, like ropes, fishing line and fishing nets can entangle marine animals. This can cause them to drown, if they breath air, it can inhibit their movements making them more vulnerable to predators and it can cause them injuries as they try to struggle free.

A beached whale's tail entangled with ropes (photo Mike Baird).
Another effect is that marine animals can consume the plastic because it looks to them like a tasty piece of food. At its most minor the animal has simply wasted its time and effort catching the plastic. But, if an animal eats enough plastic it can clog their digestive tracts making it hard for them to eat and digest real food. And it is not just the larger animals like whales, turtles and sea birds that are at risk from ingesting plastic. We know that there are some very small, even microscopic animals that are eating plastics.

Plastic bag fragments found in the contents of a turtle's stomach (photo Victoria González Carman).
Plastics have also been reported to accumulate toxic chemicals on their surface in high concentrations. And if marine animals eat the plastics the chemicals can be released during digestion and become incorporated into their tissues. So even if an animal eats plastic rarely, it can acquire a toxic dose of some chemicals that enter its system via the plastic. The research on toxic plastic is controversial and not yet widely accepted.

So plastic waste is a huge problem for life in the ocean. In fact, one researcher looking at plastics in the ocean has argued in a recent book that the biggest effect on the marine environment this century won't be climate change, it'll be plastic waste.

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