Wednesday, 1 December 2010


n 1994 Charles Moore founded Algalita Marine Research Foundation (AMRF) to focus on the “coastal ocean”, specifically on the restoration of disappearing giant kelp forests and the improvement of water quality through the preservation and re-construction of wetlands along the California coast. In 1997, his focus dramatically changed… While returning to California from Hawaii aboard his 50-foot catamaran Alguita, he chose to chart a course through the North Pacific subtropical Gyre. This area of the Pacific is a circulating rotation of ocean currents and is normally avoided by sailors due to its light winds.

In the eastern portion of the Gyre he encountered enormous amounts of rubbish, mostly plastic, scattered across the area. Now commonly referred to as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, it is a vast plastic soup (from the surface down through the water column) containing everything from large abandoned fishing nets (ghost nets) to plastic bottles, bottle caps, toothbrushes, containers, boxes, to minuscule particles of plastic that have either been reduced from larger pieces by wave action or sunlight (photo-degradation).

There are between five and eleven gyres identified in the world’s oceans, including at least four zones in the southern hemispheres – the Southern Pacific, South Atlantic, Indian Ocean and Antarctic gyres. Sub-polar circulation in the southern hemisphere is dominated by the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, due to the lack of large landmasses breaking up the Southern Ocean. The Antarctic Circumpolar Current is the strongest current system in the world oceans, the one that links the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific basins. It keeps increasingly warm ocean waters away from Antarctica, enabling that continent to best protect its huge ice sheet.

A quick view of the vid below (look past the entrepreneurial yelling) and the research at the 5Gyres site might give us pause to think about the plastics we purchase and use in our day to day…

The North Americans have taken some interest and created a number of research and activist groups, including 5Gyres, and at least one has even created opportunities for schools to participate online with their efforts. In March and April 2010, a Dutch voyage following Charles Darwin’s five year Beagle voyages assisted 5G in collecting samples on the Indian Ocean leg of their journey. A blog here is reporting regular updates on a current trip from Brazil to South Africa to sample and study plastic pollution across the South Atlantic Ocean. For those for whom it doesn’t seem too incongruous (tho’ for me it is way beyond irony), there is even an iPhone app to help track the research and work…

In the Central North Pacific Gyre, pieces of plastic outweigh surface zoo-plankton by a factor of 6 to 1. Ninety percent of Laysan Albatross chick carcasses and regurgitated stomach contents contain plastics. Fish and seabirds mistake plastic for food. Plastic debris release chemical additives and plasticizers into the ocean. Plastic also absorbs hydrophobic pollutants, like PCBs, and pesticides like DDT. These pollutants bio-accumulate in the tissues of marine organisms, bio-magnify up the food chain, and find their way into the foods we eat.


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