Friday, May 6, 2011

Destroying our Oceans: Impact of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

By John Clancey

The Earth is as a storm. Violently it crashes and trumpets along its trillion year journey. Like a wildfire burning on a California horizon, the Earth surrounds itself in tapestry of both beauty and terror. In essence our planet is a hospitable destroyer. It will deny life as easily as it fosters it. Often times life will simply die off, a casualty of the constant unseen equation of nature. Still, despite the changes our planet has seen, the existence of life has always remained firmly rooted. However, our modern age has threatened life with a new villain: pollutants.

Providing habitat for some of our planet’s most diverse life, the Pacific Ocean is invaluable as a natural resource. In recent years, however, the big blue has taken on something more than new marine life. Between the 30th and 35th latitudinal parallels, human pollution has assured the alteration of eco systems on a massive scale. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, or trash vortex, is that alteration.

An artificial reef made of toxic materials, the patch has acuminated an estimated 100million tons of waste. The new small continent of floating plastic has become a major concern for oceanologists the world over.

The exact size of the Great Pacific Garbage patch is not known. It is thought to be roughly anywhere from the size of the continental U.S to at least double the size of Texas. The reason for such huge discrepancies is the difficulty and process involved in obtaining that data. Sample sizes suggest that the patch is now anywhere from .41%to 8.1% of the entire Pacific Ocean, a startling estimate by any account. Additionally, there is no specific standard for determining the boundary between "normal" and "elevated" levels of pollutants assuring difficulty in providing a firm image of the affected area.

Map of The North Pacific Gyre

Unlike organic waste, plastic does not decompose. Instead it lingers, suffocating eco systems for hundreds of years. In the water, plastics undergo a process known as Photo graduation; the process where plastics disintegrate into smaller and smaller pieces down to a molecular level. At this point the material doesn’t go anywhere; it instead forms a toxic fog.

“Plastics state of matter is almost like a liquid,” stated Paul Hennery, organic chemistry major form Ramapo College of New Jersey. “Overtime it will just break down to that type of state.”

It is because the Great Pacific Garbage Patch exists in this state that it is impossible to view from satellite imagery. In fact, most pollution is near invisible to the naked eye. However, researchers have derived means in which to measure the level of plastics in an area by testing neaston, or tiny animals that dwell on the surface. Through these organisms it is possible to distinguish the concentration of plastics in the water.

In 1988 a paper was published by the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) surrounding the conclusions of several Alaska based researchers. They found, after measuring the neustonic plastic levels between 1985 and 1988, that unusually high concentrations of marine debris had accumulated in regions governed by ocean currents. This thesis would be confirmed almost ten years later by Charles J. Moore as he passed through the patch firsthand.

Discovered in 1997, the trash vortex was created in the gyre of the North Pacific Subtropical Zone. A gyre, or ocean current, is defined as any large system of rotating water. Ocean Gyres move water in great circular patterns governing all oceanic currents. The North Pacific Gyre, located along the equator and considered the world’s largest eco system, has become infamous for its mass accumulation of trash and plastic. Slowly gathered by the drifting tides, the waste has collected into a giant shifting stew, ripe with choking poisons.

off the coast of Hawaii

Examples of toxins located into the Great Pacific Garbage Patch include:

Bispherol A (BPA)- a dangerous chemical considered a toxic substance in Canada. It is known to produce estrogen and can have adverse affects of people’s hormonal levels. It is banned as a material in the production of children’s baby bottles by both Canada and the European Union.

PCB- used for many applications, especially as dielectric fluids in transformers, capacitors, and coolants. These products were banned by the United States Congress in 1979 and by the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants in 2001.

Polystyrene- an extremely moldable compound used for most plastic products worldwide. It is highly toxic to marine life and cannot be broken down by any known bacteria.

Laysan Albatross killed after accidentally eating plastic

The effects of these maritime pollutants are wide spread to say the least. Once small enough, plastics can enter the food chain via the smaller organisms, thus contaminating animals higher up the ladder. Jellyfish absorb the plastics, which are then eaten by fish, which are then eaten by humans. This results in the ingestion of toxic chemicals. When eaten, some of these chemicals are mistaken by the endocrine system as estradiol, causing hormone disruption is whatever affected animal. Even after all this, evasive species can attach themselves to floating debris, providing them with free passage to venerable new eco systems.

It’s strange to think of the ocean as anything but the lifeblood of our planet. Unfortunately this is an out dated representation. The oceans of the modern world are no longer the crisp clear waters of yesteryear. Instead we are left with a modern man-made crisis that we may never see rectified in our lifetime.

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About the Author

John Clancey is a third year Communications Major at Ramapo College of New Jersey. His studies focus in writing and media evaluation. He aspires to become a professional writer of screen plays and short stories. Academically he focuses on Media, film, and short fiction.

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