Sea garbage strangles oceans thwarting search efforts to find the missing Malaysian Airlines plane now widely presumed to have gone down somewhere off the coast of Australia. However, the frequent sighting of floating refuse are bringing public attention back to the condition of the planets oceans.
As frustration mounts among searchers, who have yet to find a scrap of evidence proving Flight 37o went down at sea, so does the evidence of a global ocean crisis. The five great oceans have become as many floating garbage dumps after decades of tossing the world’s garbage into the oceans, but the problem goes even deeper.
Search team are being sent out to find what are thought to be debris from the missing aircraft but, so far at least, all they have come up with is ordinary, common, garden variety refuse….and there is a lot of it. Flight 370 is now thought to have gone down somewhere to west of Perth Australia, where a vast, swirling vortex of refuse – called an ocean gyre – is floating across the emptiness of the Indian ocean in a swathe beginning around 1,2oo miles west of Perth, Australia, and extends for hundreds of miles north and west.
The Indian Ocean gyre is one of five officially recognized to date blighting the surfaces of Earth’s oceans. They go by various names, but their locations are plain enough. In addition to the Indian Ocean Gyre, there is the North Pacific Gyre, also known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which extends from east coast of Asia to the west coast of North America, is twice as large as the United States itself. The South Pacific Gyre stretches from Australia to the West Coast of South America, dipping down as far as the Antarctic Ocean. Two more gyres circulate between the eastern coast of North America to Northern Africa, the British Isles and Southern Europe. The South Atlantic Gyre connects South America to Southern Africa.
They are not much to look at, because 90 percent of the gyres consists of plastic particles floating below the surface of the water. In fact, they are nearly invisible to the naked eye. Most of the heavy stuff – usually metals – sinks to the bottom of ocean where it causes a different kind of havoc, while the lighter flotsam – largely plastic, paper and wood products – remains near or on the surface, where sea and sun break the plastic down into tiny pieces of deadly confetti.
The petroleum-based plastics have been entering the food chain. Plankton have been found with tiny pieces of plastic in their guts. Larger fish eat the smaller fish that eat the plankton, and we eat the larger fish, inevitably ingesting some of the plastics insinuated into the food supply. Plastic, and especially granular plastics, have a nasty habit of absorbing and concentrating pollutants, pesticides, and other chemicals, introducing addition pollution into the food stream.
Another issue scientists are exploring is whether the plastic suspended in the ocean waters around the world are having an adverse effect on the oxygenation of the ocean, and whether, by blocking some of the sunlight hitting the oceans, the plastic soup is contributing to the growth of algae plumes such as the Red Tide, which further endangers sea life.
It gets even worse, because the ordinary sea garbage with which we are familiar is now showing evidence of radioactive contamination from Japan’s crippled Fukushima nuclear power plants. So far, the radioactivity isn’t enough to harm anyone, but Fukushima continues to pour untreated coolant into the ocean because their filtration systems broke down earlier this month and have not yet been fixed.
Sea garbage is one thing, but there are two additional pollutants in the mix. Fertilizers and pesticides from farm water runoff are getting into the ocean, causing one more unintended consequence, as fertilizer use continues to increase to support drought weakened crops across the Midwest. As if that were not enough, the melting of the polar ice caps is decreasing the salinity of the ocean’s sea water, which may soon start dipping below the minimum salinity required for ocean health.
Environmental activists have been pleading with the world to stop using plastic wrapping around food products, and plastic bags to lug the stuff home but, without the plastic wrapping, food goes bad more quickly and, without plastic bags, most people would not be able to bring home the bacon, or put out the trash.
No one quite knows what to do about the garbage in the ocean. Of course, the easiest thing to say is just, “Don’t throw anything away,” but try it for a while and see how long it takes before the neighbors call the police. Not using plastics is an easy answer but in a modern society, it is practically impossible to distribute food safely in the massive, mass-produced manner to which Western civilization has become accustomed.
It has been said, more than once, that “you are what you eat” but it is also true that what people chooses to throw away also says a lot about them. An organism cannot live in its own waste products but that seems to be what the world is trying to do.
Most everyone has heard so many dire predictions about the environment, the warnings go in one ear and out the other, to the utter frustration of environmental activists who, in the overall scheme of things, are the good guys despite their nagging ways.
So, as more and more sea garbage strangles the oceans and thwarts search efforts, it might also be time to take a hard look at what people keep, and what they throw away…but no one really seems to be listening.
By Alan M. Milner
Follow Alan Milner on Twitter @alanmilner
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