This post originally appeared on National Geographic’s Ocean Views blog.
During this bruising presidential campaign, there was an eerie sense that we had moved into a post-truth world, with fake news circulating on Facebook and the veracity of then-presidential candidate Donald Trump continually called into question. In fact, Oxford Dictionaries just declared “post-truth” its 2016 international Word of the Year.
But for me personally, facts really matter. It’s why I’m a scientist.
In the new documentary “Dispatches from the Gulf,” the scientists are the heroes. The film airs for the general public for the first time via livestream on April 20 at 2pm and 7pm eastern. I got a sneak peek of the film, and trust me—you won’t want to miss it.
Since the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster began in 2010, hundreds of scientists around the country have been documenting the impacts of the tragedy on the wildlife and habitats of the Gulf of Mexico. This documentary tells the stories of these scientists, from the University of Miami team that built the equivalent of a treadmill for mahi mahi to test their endurance and see how oil has affected their hearts, to Christopher Reddy, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute scientist who scours the beach for tar balls with a simple tote bag and pair of purple gloves.
The following is a guest blog from Dr. Chelsea Rochman, who is currently serving as a Smith Postdoctoral Fellow in Conservation Biology.
For decades, we have heard concerns regarding the entanglement of marine mammals and sea turtles in marine debris. We see images of seabirds, turtles and whales washing up with bellies full of trash. And more recently, we see constant media attention on microplastics—small pieces of plastic debris less than five millimeters in size. Marine debris is everywhere. It is reported from the poles to the equator and from the surface to the seafloor. It has been recorded in tens of thousands of individual animals encompassing nearly 600 species.
With such vast and abundant contamination, comes a perception that marine debris is a large threat to the ecology of our ocean. As part of a working group at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) facilitated by Ocean Conservancy and focused on marine debris, I worked with a group of scientists to ask if the weight of evidence demonstrating impacts matched the weight of this concern? The findings of our analysis have just been published.
Ocean change is happening, and all of us who love and rely on the ocean are recognizing how important that is for our future. Ocean Conservancy recently participated in the Our Ocean conference in Chile, where global leaders convened to advance solutions to changes and threats to our ocean like illegal fishing, marine plastic pollution, and ocean acidification. Scientists, too, have been focusing on these challenging problems and responses to them. It is clear that if we are to confront the consequences of a changing ocean, we will need more and better science to anticipate these changes and respond proactively to protect the ocean’s future and our own.
Measuring ocean acidification is tough — we can’t see it, and we have to use specialized instruments to measure it properly. Scientists use specialized laboratories to make the most accurate chemistry measurements of deep ocean waters. Worse, even the most affordable instruments to get this data still costs tens of thousands of dollars. This makes life difficult for shellfish growers, marine resource managers, and decision-makers who are trying to monitor ocean acidification and protect businesses, fisheries and local communities.
Walk along a beach or waterway and you’re apt to see a food wrapper floating on the water or glimpse a beverage bottle made of plastic hovering near the shore. Read an article about the ocean gyres, the so-called “garbage patches,” and you’re likely to hear about the vast amounts of plastics that are polluting the seas.
Three years ago, researchers at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) set out to quantify – for the first time – the amount of plastic waste entering the ocean from land-based sources. Their research shows staggering results – with annual plastics inputs into the ocean exceeding 4.8 million tonnes and possibly as high as 12.7 million tonnes (approx. 11-26 billion pounds). Because the quantities are growing rapidly due to increases both in population and in plastics use, there may be as much as 250 million tons (550 billion pounds) of plastic in the ocean within another decade. These findings were published today in the February issue of Science and provide more in-depth information about what is happening with plastics in the ocean.
Once plastics enter the marine environment they disperse across our global ocean. There is no one single entry point for ocean plastic pollution. In fact, the global problem is comprised of a myriad of local inputs from beaches and waterways around the world. But the recent research shows that the largest amounts of plastic in the ocean come from a relatively small number of rapidly developing economies. In fact, 83 percent of the plastic waste that is available to enter the ocean comes from just 20 countries; chief among them are China, Indonesia, and the Philippines with the United States rounding out the top 20. The economies where plastic inputs are greatest are those where population growth and plastics consumption is severely outpacing waste management capacity. In many of these geographies waste collection is simply nonexistent.