This past weekend, a failed test of Shell’s oil spill containment system resulted in damage to the dome designed to contain oil in the event of a spill. In light of the damage to the containment dome, Shell announced that it was abandoning its plans to drill into oil-bearing layers in the Arctic Ocean this summer. The company said its drilling operations in the Arctic Ocean this summer would be limited to “top holes”—initial sections of wells that do not penetrate into known oil-bearing layers.
The coast of southeast Alaska is renowned for its stunning beauty, and the pocket beach outside the town of Sitka was no exception: dark sand piled with tangles of storm-tossed logs and fringed with emerald grass. From a distance, the beach looked pristine.
But as our boat pulled closer, we began to see what we had come for: trash. Chunks of polystyrene foam, plastic bottles, lengths of line, bits of faded blue tarp and pieces of netting were wedged in the piles of driftwood and strewn in the beach grass. It was time to get to work.
I was in Sitka to take part in a series of beach cleanups that brought together staff from Ocean Conservancy, the Marine Conservation Alliance Foundation and the Sitka Sound Science Center, along with volunteers from Allen Marine and Holland America Line. Together, we set out to find and remove marine debris that had washed up on the shores of nearby islands.
Debris in the wrack line shows a typical compilation of the foam and bottles that made up the majority of debris on East Beach. Credit: Ryan Ridge
Remote cleanups in Alaska are not your typical day at the beach; they’re difficult, physically exhausting and resource intensive. The possibility of debris from last year’s tsunami in Japan is adding to the already difficult task.
For the past six years, volunteers from Gulf of Alaska Keeper (GoAK) have spent hundreds of hours removing thousands of pounds of debris from the remote beaches at Gore Point, Alaska; recently though, cleanups on these beaches look very different. Twelve volunteers from GoAK and the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies (CACS) recently spent six days cleaning roughly two miles of the Gore Point coastline. The cleanup, which was partly funded by a grant from Ocean Conservancy and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and made possible through volunteer labor and donated boats, collected over 90 cubic yards of debris weighing more than 4,000 pounds—enough to fill an entire school bus. Half of that was foamed plastic.
Large, diverse quantities of debris are the norm at typical beach cleanups, but at Gore Point, data forms were dominated by counts of foamed plastic pieces and foam insulation. Combined, foamed plastic accounted for more than one quarter of total debris weight and over half the volume (greater than 45 cubic yards)—an amount nearly four to six times the average amount of foam debris documented during GoAK’s past cleanups. On one particular beach, a 93-fold increase has been recorded in foamed plastic (by weight) between pre- and post-tsunami cleanups. Patrick Chandler, Special Programs Coordinator at CACS and Alaska State International Coastal Cleanup Coordinator described the severity of foam flotsam:
After spending a long day pulling debris from logs, digging it out of sand and hauling it into piles for pickup, the most disheartening thing to see is a section of beach so covered with small bits of foamed plastic that you know it’s hopeless to try to pick it all up.
The likely source of this foam is insulation from buildings that were destroyed by the March 2011 Japan earthquake and tsunami, and foam buoys commonly used in nearshore aquaculture—conjectures confirmed by Japanese marine debris experts. Continue reading »
Much has changed since a teenaged Feo Pitcairn took his first wildlife photographs and developed them in his parent’s cellar.
For one thing, he’s no longer using that darkroom; his equipment now includes high-definition digital cameras that produce images with up to 40 million pixels.
His work has been showcased at the Smithsonian, on PBS and in countless books, magazines and calendars. And his film “Ocean Voyagers,” narrated by Meryl Streep, has been converted to 3-D and nominated for an award at the upcoming BLUE Ocean Film Festival.
Most recently, he’s transitioned from natural-history filmmaking back to his first love, still photography, and he’s launching an online gallery to share his work with the world.
A former Ocean Conservancy board member and long-time supporter of the organization, Feo has also witnessed a great deal of change in the health of our ocean during his many years as a photographer. He shares his experiences and insights—as well as a slideshow of beautiful ocean images—after the jump.
Reckless Arctic drilling isn’t worth the risk. Photo courtesy of US Fish and Wildlife Service.
In its quest to drill exploratory oil wells in the Arctic Ocean north of Alaska, oil giant Royal Dutch Shell made a lot of promises to government regulators about its ability to run a safe and clean drilling operation in the challenging Arctic environment. But as the drilling season approaches, Shell is already experiencing setbacks and backtracking on its commitments.
To the Arctic follows a polar bear mother and her two cubs through a changing world. Image from MacGillivray Freeman Films.
Arctic drilling may not seem like something that affects most of us. After all, when was the last time you had a chance to dive into icy Arctic waters with walruses or follow polar bears across vast stretches of sea ice? But now, you can experience the Arctic from the comfort of a theater seat with “To the Arctic,” a new IMAX® movie by MacGillivray Freeman.
The film, narrated by Meryl Streep, follows a polar bear and her two cubs as they make their way through the rugged Arctic landscape. Along the way, you’ll see amazing images of our rapidly changing world, including stunning footage of wildlife, sweeping stretches of tundra, ghostly northern lights, and sculpted icebergs dotting the ocean.
But there are some things you shouldn’t see in the Arctic—like offshore drilling rigs. This summer, Shell is planning to drill for oil in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas off the north and west coasts of Alaska. Continue reading »