5 Gyres joined the crew of 2041 to Antarctica to survey plastic pollution. Our missions are aligned. 2041 aims to “…build personal leadership skills among people who choose to embrace the challenge of sustaining all forms of life – in their families, communities, organizations and the planet.” How awesome is that? We worked with the most amazing volunteers from a crew of 81 people from 27 countries to answer the question, “Is Antarctica polluted with plastic?”
We did a lot of work together. With 10 hours of sea surface observations, two kilometers of beach combing, and 8 m2 of microplastic sampling, I can report that we found almost nothing. This is great news, but we need to do more work. While there’s a need for more sampling here, I’m left with the reassuring belief that this part of the world isn’t feeding its wildlife too much anthropogenic junk.
Here’s what we found. In a 10-day expedition, we only spotted one fishing buoy. Our beachcombing produced one bottle cap, a meter of fishing line, and a packing strap likely from a bait box discarded from a fishing vessel. Our microplastic sampling on the beaches inside the caldera of Deception Island produced no microplastic pollution.
Here’s why I think the waters of Antarctica are much cleaner than the three subtropical gyres above it. Between the South Atlantic, South Pacific and Indian Ocean gyres, there’s what’s called the “Subtropical Convergence”. This is where the colder waters swirling around Antarctica dive under the warmer waters of the three gyres. This frontal system is where waters converge and forms a bit of a blockade against plastic pollution. Look at the line of red stars below. That’s the subtropical convergence, and it wraps around Antarctica.
The result is that this amazing part of the world is kept beautiful by stormy seas that push both sailors and trash away. Can we keep it that way? As Robert Swan, founder of 2041, says, “Can we leave just one place alone?” After all of the previous expeditions of 5 Gyres to discover microplastics in the 5 subtropical gyres, we heralded a call to action to stop the flow of plastic to the sea. Antarctica is a different call to action, and in the words of the UN Antarctic Treaty of 1991, let’s keep Antarctica “A natural reserve devoted to peace and science,” … and free of plastic trash.
Thanks to the crew of 2041 and IAE 2015. Your commitment to conservation and social justice is inspiring beyond words.
(This blog originally appeared on 5 Gyres. It has been reposted here with permission.)