Scientific Ocean Studies a Load of Garbage?

The Pacific Ocean is home to copious marine flora and fauna, vital fisheries for human consumption, and…a vast pool of litter? The “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” is in the gyre (large system of rotating ocean currents involved with large wind movements) of the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone in the central North Pacific Ocean. The rotational pattern of the gyre brings in waste material from coastal waters off North American and Japan. The waste gets trapped in the Garbage Patch by the wind-driven surface currents that slowly move floating material toward its center.

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An enormous portion of the waste is plastic material, some of which becomes small enough to be ingested by aquatic life as it disintegrates. Nueston (organisms that float on top of water or live right under the surface) eat the plastic and then the waste enters the aquatic food chain. Longer lasting plastics end up in the stomachs of sea turtles and Black-Footed Albatross, along with many other marine birds and animals.

Not only do the plastics have a toxic effect on wildlife, some are mistaken by their endocrine systems as estradiol, leading to hormone disruption. Many of the fish that eat the plastics are then consumed by humans, causing adverse human health effects. Interestingly enough, plastics in the ocean also assist the spread of invasive species that attach to floating debris and drift to new regions to colonize other ecosystems.

A paper published by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in 1988 predicted the existence of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, but the magnitude of the patch has been heavily disputed within the scientific community.

The estimates of the area of the patch have varied widely depending on the degree of plastic concentration used to identify the affected area. There is no specific standard for determining the difference between “normal” and “elevated” levels of pollutants or a standard for what constitutes being part of the patch. Who’s to decide what constitutes a “higher than normal” degree of concentration of debris in the ocean?

I may be a bit of an idealist, but I believe there should be trace amounts of waste in the ocean. We as humans have a responsibility to our planet to take care of it; there is no excuse for poor (or no) recycling of plastics and improper waste disposal. Therefore, my personal “higher than normal” degree would be very different from others who are not as concerned for the planet. It is easy to see how scientists may not reach a uniform conclusion on the difference between “normal” and “elevated” levels of marine pollution.

Conducting studies to determine the amount of pollution in the ocean alone is extremely thorny. Most of the debris is small plastic particles that are suspended at or just below the surface,undetectable by aircraft or satellite. Because of this, samples are taken to try to determine the degree of waste concentration and later used to calculate the area of the patch. Samples are verified by mesh net size, making similar net sizes essential among scientists for making meaningful comparisons across various studies.

After analyzing sample data, some scientists have claimed the Garbage Patch is twice the size of Texas (half a million square miles) or the equivalent of 20 times the size of England. Greenpeace cites studies that have concluded the amount of plastic outweighs the amount of plankton by a ratio of six to one. Greenpeace also publicized the following claim: Of the more than 200 billion pounds of plastic the world produces each year, about 10 percent ends up in the ocean.

Angelicque White, an assistant professor of oceanography at Oregon State, participated in a few expeditions examining the effects of plastic on microbial communities, research that was funded in part by the National Science Foundation through C-MORE, Center for Microbial Oceanography: Research and Education. White disagrees that parts of the ocean are filled with more plastic than plankton and the claim that the patch has been growing tenfold each decade since the 1950’s. Her recent research has shown that, when looking at the actual area of the plastic itself, rather than the entire North Pacific subtropical gyre, the hypothetically “cohesive” plastic patch is actually less than 1 percent of the geographic size of Texas. White also dismissed a recent claim that the garbage patch is as deep as the Golden Gate Bridge is tall, calling it “completely unfounded.”

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch raises an important question in the environmental community: How far is too far? Do scientists have some sort of obligation to their field of study; therefore exaggerate their findings to increase public awareness? Maybe the incentive of more research grants finding their way to high profile problems is enough to stretch the truth or conduct an agenda-setting study? Or do these bogus studies just create controversy among scientists and journalists, instead of shedding light on an issue? Professor White believes genuine scientific concerns are undermined by scare tactics of groups like Greenpeace, asserting that the garbage patch is so large there is now more plastic than plankton in the Pacific. White said, “There is no doubt that the amount of plastic in the world’s oceans is troubling, but this kind of exaggeration undermines the credibility of scientists.” Science should reveal the truth about the processes and problems of both naturally-occurring and anthropogenic phenomena — not produce a load of garbage.

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