The SEAPLEX cruise is almost over! They will be in Newport tomorrow, and then most of the science party will be back in San Diego on Saturday. I am not sure what the fate of the blog will be after the cruise. There definitely will not be daily updates. However, I think that there are plans for the blog to remain active as one way of sharing the information gathered on the cruise with the public, so please continue to check in with us!
Our post today is from Miriam Goldstein.
From Walden Pond to the North Pacific Gyre
We’ve left the gyre – the water temperature has dropped several degrees and the wind and waves have kicked up. I’ve had two disappointments today – I’ve had to go back on seasickness medication after a glorious two-week break, and we’ve had to cease sampling in order to make Newport on time. All of a sudden, I’m reduced from frantically processing samples to lying limply on a bean bag chair. This makes me contemplative, and I thought it was time to ask why people care so much about plastic in the North Pacific Gyre.
Most ocean scientists I’ve talked to don’t understand why marine debris compels the public attention. With so much bad news all around – coral reefs bleaching, sharks careening towards extinction – why care about some trash in an isolated part of the ocean that few have even seen? On the practical side, (unlike, say, global climate change), plastic trash doesn’t require any specialized knowledge to understand. Everyone generates trash, and everyone’s seen litter at the beach or in a park. And plastic is also never found in nature, so any plastic floating in the ocean must have been put there by humans.
But I think there’s something more emotional and deeper going on here to generate such strong public interest. Plastic is symbolic of our times. From its advent in the 1950s, plastic has been an integral part of our shiny industrialized lives. Plastic has brought wonderful things like disposable contact lenses and waterproof paper, but plastic has also brought disposable items made from a permanent material. In the United States, people are deluged with cheap plastic consumer goods that aren’t meant to last, but to be thrown out and bought again.
Plastic litter in the middle of the oceanic wilderness is shocking because it makes human impacts on the earth explicit, and violates our idea of what is natural. The ocean is a very alien and unhuman environment, hostile to human life and populated by strange and exotic beasts. So seeing the undeniable action of humans in the midst of the vast unpopulated sea is far more appalling than seeing it in a forest or a field. People want to know that there are wildernesses out there somewhere, and if even the open sea is no longer a wilderness, what is?
Most scientists would probably say that there are no truly wild places left. Humans are mighty – we can trawl every seamount, climb every mountain, and perturb the atmosphere itself. Everything on earth, from the deepest oceanic abyss to the highest mountain, is touched by human influence. But seeing that influence just floating out here in the middle of nowhere makes our power painfully obvious, and the consequences of the industrial age plain. It’s not a pretty sight.
Six of the hundreds of sample jars collected during the SEAPLEX cruise.
The ocean was calm within the North Pacific Gyre, but the swells picked up as the New Horizon heads north to Newport, Ore. on August 19.