Tracking Ocean Debris in the North Pacific


This is a movie showing the drift pattern of some ocean debris (a large houser line.) We were out 1000nm north of Hawaii on a NOAA research ship. This cruise was part of a project that has also provided a small amount of funding to develop a "marinized" small UAV that could be deployed from a variety of ship sizes with minimal infrastructure requirements.
We found the houser line on April 2, 2008 and attached a tracking buoy to it. The buoy is still reporting it's position twice daily and it's really fascinating to see a map of it's voyage for the past THREE years.
If anyone is interested in this stuff I posted a longer entry on my personal blog here:

http://gallinazo.flightgear.org/technology/tracking-ocean-debris-in...

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Comment by Ritchie on April 15, 2011 at 3:01am

In your travels have you seen the Great Pacific Trash Gyre? Its within the zone you are travelling apparently and affects an area twice the size of Texas. I'd love to see this trash collector of the sea as surely it is shrinking due to cleanup efforts.

Very interesting buoy data.

Comment by Curt Olson on April 15, 2011 at 4:52am

Hi Ritchie, yes we were right out in the middle of the "great pacific trash gyre".  Here is how I would characterize it:

1. It's definitely not an island of trash where you could walk across it, not even close.

2. At a quick glance the ocean just looks the same as any other place.

3. However, when you start looking down at the water you are traveling through you do start to see small objects and specs of stuff -- part of a five gallon pail, a toothbrush, a comb, part of a plastic quart oil container.  Basically it's anything thats trash, but just the plastic stuff (everything else sinks or degrades, but not plastic.)

4. As you travel through the area, maybe every 30-60 seconds you can see another significant object, but in places there are little specs every where you look.  (Sometimes it's hard to distinguish if it is a spec of plastic, or a foam/bubble from the waves or the ship wake.)

5. From the environmental angle, this is ending up in the stomachs of a lot of poor sea creatures and causing them issues ... if not outright killing them in many cases.

6. Another big problem is abandoned drift nets -- up to 30 miles of netting that fisherman just cut loose when they don't want it any more.  These "ghost" nets can drift almost indefinitely, tangling up on themselves in a huge mess.  The sad part is they continue to do their job ... snaring fish and wildlife.  Often these ghost nets wash up on the coral reefs in the protected areas of the Hawaiian islands.  That is where NOAA enters the picture, because it's their job to go in and clean up these areas they are given to manage and protect (expensive and dangerous.)

 

Personal commentary:  I've never been a crazy tree hugger, but any time you see a mess like this, it's really sad.  Unfortunately it's out in an area where no one goes ... it's mostly just container ships out there getting from point A to point B as quickly as possible.  There are efforts to bring awareness to the problem (Charles Moore is a fairly well known private individual who is trying to raise the alarm bells.)   But once the plastic debris is in the ocean, it's tremendously difficult to (a) find, and (b) clean up.

Also the ocean is really huge.

I forget the exact numbers, but I sat down and figured how much area our UAS could cover per hour at typical cruise speeds.  If you divide that into the size of the ocean, we were looking at something like 12 billion years to scan every inch of ocean just once!  And that would only find the big stuff.  And it would probably have moved by the time you got there to pull it out so you might never get the stuff anyway.

Arguably, the real danger is in the littler chunks that the marine animals eat.  You'd almost have to get nets out there to collect that stuff, but then you have to figure out how you can trap the shards of plastic without trapping the very creatures we are trying to help.  It's a tough problem.

There was a marine debris conference in Hawaii a couple weeks ago so there are folks that are thinking about the various aspects of this complicated and difficult issue.  Also, the "North Pacific" gyre is not the only gyre.  There are other areas of concentration that affect other countries.  I heard a presentation from a guy out of Australia who talked of one particular area that tends the trap the debris and hold it.  It's significantly impacting the wildlife in that area and the native groups that have a cultural dependence on that wildlife.

I've always meant to some day get around to posting my collection of marine debris ... maybe I'll see if I can pull some pictures together and do that here ... just so people can see the sorts of things that I saw.

Comment by Curt Olson on April 15, 2011 at 11:20am
I don't imagine this is a high interest area here, but just for reference, here is my picture collection of North Pacific marine debris:

http://gallinazo.flightgear.org/technology/marine-debris/north-paci...

Comment by Curt Olson on April 16, 2011 at 11:13am
One more link which has nothing to do with UAV's or ocean debris. When I was out at sea I witnessed some spectacular sunsets. I made an album just of ocean sunsets of someone wants to OD on the color "orange". :-)

http://gallinazo.flightgear.org/technology/marine-debris/north-paci...

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