A river of green phosphorescence trails the ship as we plow NE toward Iceland into colder and colder foggy waters. Midnight watch is something straight out of Pirates of the Caribbean, with mist so thick that you barely see the navigation lights on the bow, the moon glows behind clouds, and the stillness of the sea is an eerie loneliness that summons suspicious caution of what may lie ahead. In reality, we have someone at the navigation station watching radar at all times in case a ship does actually appear out of nowhere. Skipper Phil warns us, “If a ship appears out of the fog, turn toward it so you’re facing bow to bow. It’s the least profile you can present and your best chance of surviving a collision,” adding, “That doesn’t work for icebergs.”
This is the setting for our science work, the trawling of the sea surface for microplastic. We toss in the manta net to skim the surface. Both the biota and plastic is changing. There’s plastic in every trawl, even here 500 miles south of the tip of Greenland. There’s not much the further north we go, often only a few visible pieces the size of grains of sand, but it’s always present. The biota is shifting from the fauna of the Sargasso Sea to our nets now filling with whale food, those little crustaceans called krill. The white fragments of plastic stand out from the purplish marine life.
What’s really interesting is that this conclusion is far less than what we’ve expected all along. Let me explain. Big trash becomes smaller trash, so we expect there to be exponentially greater small particles in the ocean than larger ones. In recent months, 5 Gyres has worked with 7 other colleagues with data from around the world to pool it all together to see if we can predict the total plastic burden on the ocean. We divide our data into 4 size ranges: 1/3-1mm, 1-5mm, 5-200mm, and >200mm. What really surprised us is that globally the smallest particles are out numbered by the next size up. There are more lentil size fragments than salt and pepper size fragments on the sea surface? What’s up with that? We have ideas, but no certainty. It could be small particles are pushed downward, or that marine organisms eat them, sink and die, or maybe they wash ashore? We just don’t know, but the observation that the ocean it kicking plastic out of the ocean is sound.
What we’re learning is where to find plastic, where it’s not, and what the plastic is doing. So far we’ve concluded that it’s everywhere. We’re not concerned with cleanup at sea, for a myriad of reasons I can explain later. We’ve got roughly 7 days left, or 14 trawls, till we make landfall.
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