Aug 22

Atlantic Garbage Patch Getting Smaller Or Just Smaller Pieces?

Eating Garbage: Plastic In Ocean Is A Bad Deal – And Meal – For Fish

(SEA) ATLANTIC OCEAN — The garbage patch may not be growing, but the plastic ends up somewhere. Plastic waste is either disintegrating and floating to the ocean floor or eaten by unsuspecting fish. Researchers explain why either scenario is hard to digest. – Global Animal  – August 22, 2011

National Geographic News, Rachel Kaufman

At first, it seemed like good news: Measurements of the “garbage patch” in the Atlantic Ocean showed that the amount of plastic trash there hasn’t increased over the past two decades.

Similar to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the North Atlantic garbage patch is somewhat like a region of plastic soup, although “soup implies you can see the vegetables,” said study leader Kara Lavender Law, an oceanographer at the Sea Education Association (SEA) in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.

Instead, most of the Atlantic trash is in the form of tiny plastic bits—from bags and bottles blown off landfills or tossed into the sea—swirling in a still undefined region of open ocean hundreds of miles off the North American coast.

Law and colleagues recently analyzed data from the Atlantic garbage patch collected over the past 22 years and found that the concentration of stuff in the patch hasn’t grown over time.

But even taking increased recycling rates into account, humans’ plastic use over the past two decades has increased. So where has all the plastic gone?

It’s possible some of the trash is just too small for researchers to catalog, study leader Law said: “Our net only captures pieces larger than [a third of a millimeter] in size, and it’s certain that the plastic breaks down into pieces smaller than that.”

Some of the fragments might have been eaten by sea creatures that mistook the plastic for plankton—tiny, free-floating marine plants and animals. The plastic pieces could also be sinking, weighed down by colonies of marine bacteria.

Another expedition to study the patch earlier this year—led by Anna Cummins and Marcus Eriksen of theAlgalita Marine Research Foundation—had intended to stop and deploy a sediment sampler to test for plastic that might have sunk to the ocean floor. But that trip was cut short by bad weather, Cummins said.

Atlantic Plastic Patch Full of Mystery

Researchers can’t tell the ages of individual plastic bits, since there are no chemical techniques for dating petroleum-based products, SEA’s Law said. That makes it nearly impossible to tell if the seemingly stable amount of trash is actually due to turnover.

There’s also currently no way to track the origins of the plastic: “We’re not seeing Coke bottles stamped with ‘Made in the U.S.A.,’” Law said. A computer model of ocean circulation suggests the fastest route to the patch begins at the U.S. East Coast.

Meanwhile, even though the SEA expedition traveled a thousand miles (1,609 kilometers) east of Bermuda, “we still can’t find the eastern edge” of the patch, Law said.

The Algalita mission traveled much farther east, all the way to the Azores islands off Portugal (map), the foundation’s Eriksen said, and “we had plastics in our samples from Bermuda to the Azores.”

Overall, the results tell “a depressing story, to be honest,” SEA’s Law added. “You’re like, Great, [the patch] is not increasing! But I’m sure it is.”

Jun 22

Dire forecast of marine life catastrophe – San Francisco Chronicle

The world’s oceans are degenerating far faster than predicted and marine life is facing extinction due to a range of human impacts – from overfishing to climate change – a report compiled by international scientists warned Tuesday.

The cumulative impact of “severe individual stresses,” ranging from climate warming and sea-water acidification to widespread chemical pollution and overfishing, would threaten the marine environment with a catastrophe “unprecedented in human history.”

The conclusions were published by a panel of international scientists who reviewed recent research at a workshop at Oxford University in Britain. They will be presented to the United Nations in New York this week for discussions on reforming governance of the oceans.

The report warned that damage to marine life would harm its ability to support humans, and that entire ecosystems, such as coral reefs, could be lost in a generation. Coral deaths alone would be considered a mass extinction, according to study chief author Alex Rogers of Oxford University. A single bleaching event in 1998 killed one-sixth of the world’s tropical coral reefs.

Carl Lundin, director of global marine programs at the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which helped produce the report with the International Program on the State of the Ocean, pointed to deaths of 1,000-year-old coral in the Indian Ocean and called the situation “really unprecedented.”

Chemicals and plastics from daily life are also causing problems for sea creatures, the report said. Overall, the world’s oceans just can’t bounce back from problems – such as oil spills – as they used to, scientists said.

“Unless action is taken now, the consequences of our activities are at a high risk of causing, through the combined effects of climate change, overexploitation, pollution and habitat loss, the next globally significant extinction event in the ocean,” it said.

The marine scientists called for a range of urgent measures to cut carbon emissions, reduce overfishing, shut unsustainable fisheries, create protected areas in the seas and cut pollution.

“As we considered the cumulative effect of what humankind does to the ocean, the implications became far worse than we had individually realized,” Rogers said. “This is a very serious situation demanding unequivocal action at every level.”

A separate study released Monday provided the most detailed look yet of sea level rise from global warming. It found the world’s oceans have been rising significantly over the past century. The yearly rise is slightly less than one-tenth of an inch, but it adds up over decades. That study was published in this week’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. This article appeared on page A – 4 of the San Francisco Chronicle