School Email Exchange

Based on your expedition, how big is the “Pacific Plastic Patch”?

Posted on November 10 2012

Question submitted by Trinity-Pawling School

Our cruise track transected a small fraction of the vast North Pacific subtropical gyre, so we really cannot answer this question from our data.  Although we did collect plastic debris in every net tow in the gyre, areas of extremely high concentrations were not consistently in a single location (see previous question), making it difficult to determine the boundaries of any high concentration region.  For this reason, the concept of a "garbage patch" is a bit misleading.

To determine the size of the region in which floating plastics accumulate, one would have to survey great swaths of the North Pacific subtropical ocean to look for the "boundaries" where plastic concentrations change rapidly and consistently over a short distance.  This is further complicated by the fact the the ocean is a dynamic place, constantly moving, so you would have to do massive surveys repeatedly over time to give a reasonable estimate from ocean data.

Another approach is to use numerical models of ocean circulation, such as the one developed by Nikolai Maximenko and Jan Hafner at University of Hawaii,  to predict where floating debris will accumulate if carried by ocean currents (as…

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Could you explain how the Pacific’s ocean currents bring all this debris together?

Posted on November 10 2012

Question submitted by Trinity-Pawling School

The North Pacific subtropical gyre consists of a clockwise circulation around the boundaries of the North Pacific basin that is ultimately driven by the surface winds blowing on the water.  In the center of the gyre the surface ocean currents converge, or flow towards one another, because of the wind patterns and the friction between the wind and the surface water of the ocean.  This region is called the subtropical convergence zone, and is typically found close to 30º latitude in all subtropical oceans.  The track of this expedition was designed to sample along this convergence zone, where we expect to find the highest accumulation of floating plastic debris.

However, it is important to note that not all debris is in one localized place in the center of the gyre.  We have found large variability (regions with relatively high concentrations of plastic very close to regions with much lower plastic concentrations).  The term oceanographers use to describe this variability is patchiness.  This is a different sense of the word "patch" than in the term, 'Great Pacific Garbage Patch'.

For a slightly more detailed discussion about the subtropical gyre circulation, please visit…

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Have any positive discoveries been made, such as an adaptation by a sea creature to plastic?

Posted on November 10 2012

Question submitted by Trinity-Pawling School

We have not found any positive outcomes from our work on plastics in the gyre.  We have seen communities of organisms on macroplastics, including gooseneck barnacles, that are clearly taking advantage of this floating substrate.  But these and other organisms could also become invasive species.

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Is it accurate that 80% of all debris is from land-based sources?

Posted on November 10 2012

Question submitted by Trinity-Pawling School

This statistic is frequently cited, but we are unaware of the primary source and data that went into this estimate.  It is not well-understood how much of marine debris originated from sources on land, although we do know that there are many routes for waste to enter the ocean from land, such as by rivers, sewage and wastewater outflows, runoff, beaches, wind transport, and catastrophic events such as hurricanes, floods, or tsunamis.  Marine sources include dumping (intentional or not) from vessels at sea or at-sea platforms, lost shipping containers, and lost fishing or aquaculture gear.  All of these sources are very difficult to quantify.

On this expedition, of the large "macroplastic" items that we recovered, about 50% are thought to have originated from a marine source (e.g. fishing floats or buoys).  Other items, including some with Japanese characters on them, appear to have become debris as a result of the 2011 tsunami in Japan (e.g. refrigerator, small boat, child's toy).  In general, unless the debris is recognizable and has some identifying characteristic that indicates whether its primary use is on land or at sea, it is impossible to determine its origin, let…

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Are you collaborating with Dr. Hideshige Takada who studies plastic pellets?

Posted on November 10 2012

Question sumitted by Trinity-Pawling School

We are not collaborating with Dr. Takada on this particular expedtion, but SEA has previoulsy shared open-ocean plastic samples for analyis in his laboratory at Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology.  Dr. Takada's group is interested in the presence of organic pollutants such as DDTs, PCBs, PAHs and others that are already present in seawater and that may sorb to plastic debris, as well as additives in plastics such as BPA and flame retardants.  The results of this analysis, which was conducted on samples collected on remote and urban beaches and in the open ocean, were published by Hirai et al. in Marine Pollution Bulletin in 2011.

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What is the minimum size plastic you can collect?  Are you missing the smallest particles?

Posted on November 09 2012

Question submitted by George Stevens Academy

The plankton nets we use to collect plastic have a mesh size of 333 um (~1/3 mm).  Marina Garland has been looking at even smaller microscopic plastics by filtering water samples.  The filter traps pieces larger than 0.5 um, and Marina then uses a dissecting microscope with 40X magnification to count them.  We also collect additional filtered samples for a lab in Seattle, WA, where new methods are being tested to detect even smaller pieces.

Bart DiFiore takes photos of biomass and plastic pieces in a sample under the microscope.

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Is there a way to find out how long a piece of plastic has been in the water?

Posted on November 09 2012

Question submitted by George Stevens Academy

There really isn’t any way to know how long plastic has been in the water.  There are many variables, some of which aren’t known at this time, that affect degradation of plastics in the ocean.  Most of the time the pieces are so small we don’t know what plastic object they originated from when they entered the ocean, let alone how long they’ve been there.

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Do you ever find organisms that were obviously harmed by plastics?

Posted on November 09 2012

Question submitted by George Stevens Academy

We did not find any organisms that were harmed by plastics during our expedition.  Researchers in several laboratories will get samples of organisms we found living on the plastic, who will be looking for answers to this question.

Kristen Mitchell, Mike Gil and Heidi Hirsch carefully remove organisms from a boat fender.  The samples they collect will be studied for plastic ingestion at labs ashore.

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Does ocean acidification have any effect on the degradation of plastic?

Posted on November 09 2012

Question submitted by George Stevens Academy

This is a great question!  The research objectives of our cruise did not include looking at ocean acidification and plastics, and there hasn’t been other research done on this topic that we know of.  Perhaps someone in your class will find the answer to this question in the future.

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What factors determine the depth at which plastic floats?

Posted on November 09 2012

Question submitted by Lewiston High School

Ultimately what determines the depth in the ocean at which plastic is neutrally-buoyant (that is, where it will remain suspended and won't rise or sink) is the density of the plastic relative to the density of seawater.  Plastic that is less dense than seawater will float at the surface, while plastic that is denser than seawater will sink to the ocean floor.  However, the density of seawater increases with depth, so plastic could have a density that allows it to remain suspended within the water column. 

Different plastics have different densities.  Polypropylene line is denser than pieces of foamed polystyrene (Styrofoam), and we do find it floating lower in the water.  Also, the size and amount of organisms that have colonized a piece of plastic can affect where it floats in the water column because they can change the density of the piece of plastic debris.

This is the first float we brought aboard.  You can see the large amount of gooseneck barnacles, among other organisms, living on it.

This is the first float we brought aboard after the organisms were…

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How much has plastic pollution increased over the past decade?

Posted on November 09 2012

Question submitted by Lewiston High School

The information given during classes on plastics we’ve had on board shows the amount of plastic being produced and disposed of has increased substantially over the last decade.  The research done by scientists at SEA studying the plastic accumulation zone in the North Atlantic does not show a rise in the concentration of floating plastics.  This could be due to the continual breaking down of the plastics by the sun and wave action to sizes not captured in the plankton nets,  or perhaps more of the plastic is sinking, maybe due to the organisms that grow on them.  We do not have enough information at this time to explain why we have not observed increasing numbers of floating plastic over the last decade in the North Atlantic.

In the North Pacific, Miriam Goldstein at Scripps Institution of Oceanography and colleagues found a 100-fold increase in the amount of floating plastic between the 1970s-1980s and the 2000s.  While the observed trends in the North Atlantic and North Pacific are very different, most scientists believe that the amount of plastic entering the ocean has likely increased in the last decade.  We just haven't…

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How does plastic affect the carbon cycle?

Posted on November 09 2012

Question submitted by Lewiston High School

Research into plastic debris in the ocean is still in very early stages, so we don't have an answer to this question yet.  Most plastics are organic polymers, which means that they are composed of very long chains of carbon atoms.  Thus, with the introduction of plastic into the ocean comes the addition of carbon, but it is bound into very large molecules.  It remains to be seen whether or not marine microbes are able to release the carbon in these materials into the ocean.

In a broader sense, most traditional plastics are made from petroleum-derived chemicals, and all plastics require energy, typically generated by fossil fuel burning, to be manufactured.  Thus, plastics manufacturing removes carbon that has been locked in fossil fuels and does two things:  1- transforms it into materials used in our everyday products, and 2- releases carbon dioxide to the atmosphere as a result of energy use.

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What is the color of plastic most eaten by animals?  The least?

Posted on November 09 2012

Question submitted by Lewiston High School

This is such an interesting question.  So far we have not found any plastics in the fish we’ve dissected so we don’t have answers for you.  The color of plastic we find the most in our samples is white.

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Do you see more plastics closer to the beach or far out to sea?

Posted on November 08 2012

Question submitted by George Washington Elementary School

During this research cruise we’ve seen a lot of plastic far out to sea in the North Pacific subtropical gyre, much more than in waters closer to shore near San Diego or Honolulu.  This is because ocean currents tend to sweep debris away from the coasts to the center of the gyre, where it ultimately accumulates.  We did not collect any data from beach environments, so we cannot compare what we have seen to beach plastic.
 

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Do you think plastic in the ocean is affecting global warming?

Posted on November 08 2012

Question submitted by George Washington Elementary School

This is an interesting question.  Some plastics floating at the sea surface are white or light-colored, which means they reflect sunlight, in turn reducing the warming of the surface ocean by a small amount.  Because of the size of most of the particles we find, it is hard to imagine that this is having a large effect on the overall heat balance.

Another way plastics could affect climate is through generation of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, as a by-product of metabolism.  Plastics are traditionally made from petroleum, although some plastics are now made from bio-renewable feedstocks such as corn or sugar cane.  Regardless of the source, all plastics contain carbon.  If microorganisms are able to break down plastics for energy, carbon dioxide would be released to the ocean in the process.  One of the major research goals of this expedition is to understand which microorganisms are living on plastic, and whether or not they are interacting with the plastic either to physically break it into smaller pieces, or to biodegrade it and use the material for energy.  While it is hard to believe that the amount of carbon dioxide…

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What type of college degree do most of your scientists have?

Posted on November 08 2012

Question submitted by George Washington Elementary School

There is not one type of degree that all our scientists have.  Some have bachelors degrees, some have masters degrees, and the chief scientist has a doctorate.  They come from all different kinds of science backgrounds such as biotechnology, environmental science and biology.  What has brought them out here to the North Pacific are their experiences during their college years that exposed them to ocean science.  Sea Education Association's undergraduate SEA Semester “semester abroad” programs have helped many students decide to pursue careers that involve ocean research.  Most of the crew onboard are alums of SEA Semester.

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How does the weather affect the amount of plastic you find?

Posted on November 08 2012

Question submitted by George Washington Elementary School

The wind is the biggest factor that determines the amount of plastic we collect in our plankton nets at the sea surface.  We collect more plastic after a time of no wind or low winds and calm seas.  When the wind blows consistently in one direction for some length of time, windrows may be set up which causes plastic, and anything else floating at the sea surface, to accumulate in a visible line at the surface.  The highest concentrations of plastic we found were from samples collected in windrows.

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Do you dissect any of the animals you find to see if they have eaten plastic?

Posted on November 08 2012

Question submitted by George Washington Elementary School

Yes, Zora McGinnis and Greg Boyd are both dissecting any fish we catch in nets or on our fish hook.  They have not found any that have ingested plastic in their gut up to this point.  Mike Gil will be sending some of the barnacles he’s found attached to large plastic debris to a lab at SEA where their guts will be checked for ingested plastic.

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How many different kinds of animals have you found living alongside the plastics?

Posted on November 08 2012

Question submitted by George Washington Elementary School

We often find fish living underneath the larger pieces of plastic.  The other animals are actually living on the plastic such as Planes crabs, gooseneck barnacles, nudibranches (sea slugs) and lots of micro-organisms.

You can see hundreds of gooseneck barnacles growing on this pink buoy. We found crabs and sea slugs among the barnacles.

Kristen, Mike and Heidi collect organisms off this large bumper we had just brought aboard.  Mike will send some of the gooseneck barnacles to a lab at SEA where they will be dissected to learn if any of them have ingested plastic.

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Are there different kinds of plastic?  If so, do you find all different kinds out at sea?

Posted on November 08 2012

Question submitted by George Washington Elementary School

If you check with your local recycling center you’ll find there are seven kinds of plastic:

#1 PET (polyethylene terephthalate) is used in many water, juice and soft drink bottles. This kind of plastic will sink (unless a cap on the bottle keeps air in it).  We are not finding #1 containers.

#2 HDPE (high density polyethylene) is used in milk jugs.  This type of plastic floats and we have found a lot of it.

#3 PVC (vinyl or polyvinyl chloride) used in cling wrap, children’s toys, shower curtains.
This type of plastic is often not recyclable and it doesn’t float.

#4 LDPE (low density polyethylene) found in most plastic shopping bags. LDPE also floats so we may be collecting this as well.

#5 PP (polypropylene) is used in baby bottles, plastic food containers and fishing line.  We have been finding lots of it in the gyre because it floats.

#6 PS (polystyrene, including Styrofoam) is used in takeout food containers and some plastic cutlery.  Foamed PS floats because of the embedded…

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What are some of the most important sailing words you use on a day-to-day basis?

Posted on November 08 2012

Question submitted by Pacific Boychoir Academy

Some of the most important sailing (nautical) names are for places aboard the ship because directions, especially in an emergency, are given using these terms:

Forward: the front or toward the front of the boat (bow)

Aft:  the back or toward the back of the boat (stern)

Port:  the left side of the boat

Starboard:  the right side of the boat

Beam:  The middle of each side of the boat

Standing on the aft deck of the Seamans looking forward, the port side is in shadow and the starboard side is in sunlight.  In the middle is the boat’s steering wheel called the helm.

The ropes are called lines.  We haul on a line when we are pulling it in order to raise the sail it’s connected to.  To let go a line, we allow it to run, letting it out hand over hand.  An example of that would be to let go of the line holding the main sail up, slowly, so the sail can be lowered or struck.  We…

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What has been the most surprising part of your expedition?

Posted on November 08 2012

Question submitted by Pacific Boychoir Academy

One of the purposes of this trip is to be on the lookout out for debris from the 2011 tsunami in Japan that is slowly making its way across the Pacific Ocean toward the U.S., being carried on the same ocean currents that move plastic debris.  We report any sightings to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), who are keeping track of the location of debris in order to project its landfall on U.S. shores.

I knew there was a good chance we would come across objects from the tsunami, but I wasn’t prepared for the emotions I felt when actually seeing the evidence of this disaster.  “Debris” is a general term, but the specific objects we find floating near the Seamans are parts of people’s lives. For example, we’ve brought aboard a car tire, fishing floats, a beverage bottle with Japanese writing, a saki cup, a child’s ball and a tether ball.

This is the broken red boat we brought along side to measure for size, and to observe the organisms living on it.  We reported it to NOAA giving them its…

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Based on your research, what do you think is the worst type of plastic for the ocean?

Posted on November 08 2012

Question submitted by Pacific Boychoir Academy

This is a difficult question to answer.  If the plastic looks like food it is dangerous to the ocean’s animals.  If it is a lost fishing net (ghost net) it drifts through the ocean continuing to catch fish and drown marine mammals and sea turtles that get caught in it.

How additives to plastic, some toxic, might harm the sea life that ingest it is still being researched.  The plastic that has broken down into microscopic pieces that persist in the ocean might end up being the most dangerous because it can be ingested so easily, by even zooplankton.  

Most of our analysis won’t begin until we are back on shore and the samples we’ve collected get to scientists in their labs.  Then, given time, we might have more specific answers to this question.

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Have you found evidence of synthetic fibers from clothes introduced via washing machine rinse water?

Posted on November 07 2012

Question submitted by Shenendehowa High School

Marina Garland, who is studying microplastics (pieces that are smaller than 5 mm) told me she has seen plastic filaments under the microscope in the samples she’s looked at.  However, it is impossible to know the origin of these fibers—whether or not they are from clothing, or if they entered the ocean via wastewater.

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How do you isolate the variables that could account for plastic at different depths?

Posted on November 07 2012

Question submitted by Shenendehowa High School

The location of plastic in the water column at any given time is a balance between its buoyancy and the energy that could move the plastic vertically.  The plastics that we collect at or near the sea surface are all buoyant in seawater; that is, the density of the plastic material is less than the density of seawater.  The density of seawater is a function of temperature, salinity, and pressure, and density increases with depth in the ocean.  Therefore, the plastic will naturally float to the surface in the absence of any mechanical force that could move it.

Vertical currents in most places in the ocean are very, very small, thus they are negligible when we consider the energy available to push plastics down into the water column.  The main source of energy creating vertical motion in the upper layers of the ocean is the wind.  The wind can mix surface water to depths of tens of meters in the subtropics.  This occurs in the "wind-mixed layer" of the surface ocean.

We hypothesize that the plastics found in the upper tens of meters of the water column have been pushed…

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Do plastics clog motors or impair other mechanical parts?

Posted on November 07 2012

Question submitted by Shenendehowa High School

Any inflow of seawater, including the continuous seaweater flow-through system in the lab, has a filter in place to trap large particles and prevent them from clogging the system.  Plastic clogging the outboard motor could be a problem if we used the small inflatable boat frequently.  

What we take very seriously is the possibility of our propeller being fouled by fishing nets or other types of floating plastic line.  We have a lookout posted in the bow during the day who has a radio to let the watch on the aft deck know to stop the propeller immediately if line capable of wrapping around it goes under the hull of the Seamans.

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Who/what inspired this project ot take place?

Posted on November 07 2012

Question submitted by Shenendehowa High School

Undergraduates participating in Sea Education Association’s (SEA) SEA Semester program have been counting plastic brought up in neuston net tows for more than 25 years in the North Atlantic and 10 years in the North Pacific.  These have been archived at SEA’s campus in Woods Hole, MA.  Scientists at SEA realized they had a unique data set over many years along the cruise tracks their boats sail each year.  A research team looked at SEA's North Atlantic data after reading reports of large patches of garbage in the Pacific.

The research team—Kara Lavender Law from SEA, Skye Morét-Ferguson and Giora Proskurowski, who held joint appointments at SEA and WHOI, Emily Peacock and Christopher Reddy from WHOI, and Nikolai A. Maximenko and Jan Hafner from the University of Hawai’i—reported their findings in Science magazine in 2010.  This group organized the Plastics at SEA: North Atlantic Expedition 2010 when SEA’s SSV Corwith Cramer became available for a research cruise that could build upon the SEA plastics data and go beyond the usual cruise tracks to search the eastern areas of the gyre in the Sargasso Sea.

That cruise…

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Do you find a lot of garbage other than plastic?  If so, what are the most unusual objects?

Posted on November 07 2012

Question submitted by Shenendehowa High School

This refrigerator we found floating on Halloween day was metal, though it contained some plastics.

We do find garbage other than plastic, such as glass bottles with caps on them.  Some of the more unusual items have been tires, glass fishing floats, and refrigerators.

Made of green glass, this fishing buoy was brought aboard when we were in an area of high plastic concentrations.

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Approximately how long will it take to remove all plastic from our oceans?

Posted on November 06 2012

Question submitted by Bainbridge High School

Referring back to earlier questions, you’ve probably realized by now that this isn’t going to happen.  We need to work on encouraging plastic manufacturers to make their products more environmentally friendly, getting our society to a place where we use plastic more thoughtfully, and improving how we dispose of the plastic we use.

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After learning about all the plastic in the ocean, will your personal use of plastic change?

Posted on November 06 2012

Question submitted by Bainbridge High School

One thing everyone onboard has in common is a deep concern for the health of our oceans.  During afternoon classes we have shared different ways we have reduced, reused or recycled plastics at home.  For me, I learned to make sure from now on my reusable bags do not contain plastic and to bring my own mug when buying a cup of coffee at a cafe.   

We’ve also discussed how we might communicate about problems caused by the over-use of plastic and people not recycling it properly, without preaching to others or making them feel guilty.  We know that plastics have been very helpful in improving science and medicine.  There are very valid uses for it.  Just saying plastic is “bad” is not a way to change the habits of people who may be unaware of the problems it causes, but we agree we need to find positive ways to do that.  

In class today we heard from someone who works for a computer company.  She said there are people whose job it is to listen to feedback from consumers and act upon it,…

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How will your research impact the science community?

Posted on November 06 2012

Question submitted by Bainbridge High School

The impact that the research from this cruise will have on the science community depends on the results that come out of it.  Considering anyone interested in science, including in that science community the students and the general public following our website, we are able to communicate what we are experiencing to an audience unable to see it firsthand for themselves.  

Our research will add to the plastic concentration data already collected at different times and in different places in the North Pacific.  It will help us better understand the distribution of plastics in the ocean, and also address how plastic is affecting the ecology of the ocean.  When completed, this research will be published in research articles that will be available to any interested person in the science community.  

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Is there a way to fix the plastics or is it past a point of no return?

Posted on November 06 2012

Question submitted by Bainbridge High School

In the answer to a previous question I referred to floating plastic, including microscopic pieces. There is also an unknown amount of plastic that sinks, as well as the plastic we are sampling that is mixed down below the sea surface.  Given the incredibly huge amount of plastic that is already in our oceans, the problem that exists is beyond fixing.  What we (people) can do is raise awareness of the problem, set examples by how we use and dispose of plastic, and work for legislation in order to stem the flow of additional plastic into the oceans.

These are just a few of the large plastic items we brought aboard from one station along our cruise track.  There are concentrated areas like this in gyres in all the subtropical oceans.

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Why are most of the pieces of plastic you’ve been finding so small?

Posted on November 06 2012

Question submitted by Bainbridge High School

This photo was taken when we were in the largest concentration of plastic so far, dubbed the “windrow tow”.  I pointed my camera straight down off the side of the Seamans. There are some zooplankton but it is clear there are many very small pieces of plastic.

As has been mentioned in previous answers, the UV rays from the sun along with wind and wave action, and possibly the bacteria living on them, work on floating plastics to continually break them down.  Marina Garland, who is doing research on microscopic plastics, explained that depending on the type of plastic, it breaks down to a certain microscopic size then persists in the ocean indefinitely.  Being petroleum-based, these microscopic pieces (as well as large pieces) not only retain some of the additives from their production, some of them toxic, they also absorb hydrophobic toxins from the ocean around them.

Seen under a microscope, filaments of plastic loop around copepods.  Photo by Marina Garland

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Are you also expecting to find protists in your samples?  If so, what types?

Posted on November 06 2012

Question submitted by The Packer Collegiate Institute

We are not specifically looking for protists although Mike Gil has found several species of algae on macroplastics brought aboard.  Greg Boyd told me that as part of their research objectives he and his collaborators will also be looking for protists on samples brought back from this cruise.

You can clearly see the different colors of algae representing different species.  As the makeup of the domain protists is changing, we are not sure whether any of these are or are not protists.  Also visible are a Planes crab, nudibranches (sea slugs) and young gooseneck barnacles the size of rice grains.

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We’re studying cells and classification. We got really excited about the biofilms being studied.

Posted on November 06 2012

Question submitted by The Packer Collegiate Institute

Hello Packer Collegiate Institute,

I think it is awesome that you got really excited when you read about my studying of biofilms. You have asked some great questions and I’ll answer them as best I can.

Are the bacteria found expected to be from the domain Archae since they may be “eating” plastic?

This is my second research expedition looking at these biofilms and from the first expeditions samples, I think it is safe to say that all three domains are involved in these biofilm communities.  The research team that I’m part of has been using a Scanning Electron Microscope to look at the surface of these biofilms and have seen Eukaryotes as well as single cellular structures. Many times in biofilm formation there needs to be a natural progression of successional organisms colonizing the substrate. Sometimes a particular microorganism cannot live without another being present first.

Greg Boyd scrapes biofilm off of a tether ball found floating in an area of floating plastic debris.

Did you hypothesize that a new strain from domain bacteria have evolved to use plastic for energy?

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What is the significance of selenium found in the plastics?  Where is it coming from?

Posted on November 06 2012

Question submitted by The Packer Collegiate Institute

Hi, Kristen Mitchell here to answer your selenium question. First let me thank you for your excellent questions. I will do my best to answer them.

Selenium was discovered by two Swedish scientists, J.J. Berzelius and J.G. Gahn, in 1817. The two researchers analyzed a residual slime that was formed during the oxidation of sulfur dioxide from copper pyrites. The residue was initially thought to be tellurium, named from the Latin, tellus, meaning Earth. Tellurium had been discovered approximately 35 years before. However, upon further investigation it proved to be a unique element, and was named after the Greek lunar deity, Selene.  Selenium is one of the rarest trace elements in the Earth’s crust with an average abundance of 0.05 ppm (parts per million). It is also unevenly distributed on the surface of the Earth.

It is true that selenium is used in electronics. It is a good semi-conductor and is also light-sensitive, and has been used in everything from photocopiers to solar panels. It is also true that selenium is an essential micronutrient. It is toxic, so it can also be consumed in excess…

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What chemical properties contained in plastic are harmful to the ocean ecosystem?

Posted on November 05 2012

Question submitted by Trinity-Pawling School

One of the reasons we are doing this research in the Pacific is to find out just what you are asking.  The answers will come after scientists in shore labs have time to do their research on the samples we’ve collected, and even then their research may lead to more questions than answers.  This kind of early, baseline research takes time.

We do know some potentially harmful chemicals are added to different types of plastic.  BPA has been in the news lately as a harmful chemical found in some baby bottles and plastic liners in cans that could leach out into our food.  Some companies are now manufacturing those items and advertising them as BPA free.   Additives, such as plasticizers, colorants, flame retardants, stabilizers, and anti-degradation agents are often added to plastics to give them the properties that make them so useful.  Many of these chemicals are toxic, but manufacturers are not required to disclose the additives used in their products.  There has been very little research into the effects these chemicals might have on marine organisms, although studies have been conducted on some of these chemicals to investigate…

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What is done with the plastics after you have completed your research?

Posted on November 05 2012

Question submitted by Trinity-Pawling School

We do not throw any of the plastics that we sample back into the ocean.  Most of the small plastic pieces are preserved using a drying method and stored in containers until we get back to land where they are sent back to SEA and archived.  Some of the large items will be used for education and outreach, while the remaining will be properly recycled or disposed of in Honolulu.

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Where does the plastic in the ocean originate?

Posted on November 05 2012

Question submitted by Trinity-Pawling School

The plastic in the ocean originates with people.  It has been dumped into the ocean from ships and from land, blown into the ocean, brought in by rain runoff and by rivers polluted by plastic.  It comes from a society used to single-use plastics who don’t dispose of them thoughtfully.  It comes from industry and households.  It’s here because it’s an inexpensive, useful material that lasts for a long time, including as debris in the ocean.

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Would you say more debris has been found in the North Pacific than the North Atlantic?

Posted on November 05 2012

Question submitted by Trinity-Pawling School

There are three people onboard the Seamans who also participated in the Plastics at SEA: North Atlantic Expedition 2010 who helped me with this question.  There have been more sightings of macroplastics such as buoys and styrofoam on this expedition compared to the Atlantic expedition.  This may be due to the fact that we are logging each of the large pieces that we see by writing down the coordinates (latitude and longitude), as well as the size of the piece of plastic.

Plastics were found in windrows in both the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans.  Looking straight down off the aft deck of the Seamans, there is no large organic material collecting plastic in this Pacific windrow, but plastics in the Atlantic were found in windrows with Sargassum seaweed.

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Is it difficult to differentiate plastics dumped from ships from those dumped from land?

Posted on November 05 2012

Question submitted by Trinity-Pawling School

Once plastics are broken up, degraded by the sun and wind/wave action, it’s much more difficult if not impossible to know where they came from.  We can tell that buoys, floats, boat bumpers and fishing nets, for example, may have come from fishing vessels.  When we are in a high density patch of plastic and see playground balls, a toothbrush, and beverage bottles there is a higher possibility that the debris is from land.  Of course, some of the household debris could have been illegally dumped from a ship.

A bumper we collected, presumably from fishing or boating activity.

The importance of knowing where pollution originates would potentially help to curb pollution from entering the ocean.  Data that support findings of plastic in the ocean and their sources can be used to develop legislation designed to stop this from happening, from a local level up to international organizations like the United Nations.

Looking at this collection of bottles, packing foam, plastic strips and barnacle covered insulation, I would assume they originated from land, especially because they were found floating in the same…

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Is there any communication between the crew and families back home?

Posted on October 29 2012

Question submitted by King Philip Regional High School

SEA’s two ships, the SSV Robert C. Seamans in the Pacific and the SSV Corwith Cramer in the Atlantic, usually take college students on SEA Semester programs where the goal is to give the students an authentic experience of being out on a ship, including limited communication with people on shore.  

Here we are on a rare SEA research cruise with adults and no internet.  I have no idea what our website looks like.  We do have folders on the ship’s intranet where we can see the photos and posts that were sent to the website.  Our captain, Jason, realizing there are people aboard with spouses and children, has worked out a system where those who want to can send emails to their loved ones once a week.  There is no routine way for those at home to reach us except by calling SEA in case of an emergency or to pass an important message to the ship.  

The captain communicates daily with the staff at SEA headquarters to let them know the ship's position, weather, planned course, and general state of…

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Are you trying to fix this problem?

Posted on October 29 2012

Question submitted by King Philip Regional High School

We are quantifying the extent of the problem along our cruise track.  It’s hard to imagine a fix to get rid of the plastic because it is so widespread.  Our best hope is that you and others help us spread the word to reduce their use of plastic, especially single-use plastics, and recycle them or dispose of them properly so the flow of plastic into our oceans can be slowed.

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What is a typical day like on the ship?

Posted on October 29 2012

Question submitted by King Philip Regional High School

I am woken up at 6am by someone who is on watch from 3am to 7am and told breakfast will be in 20 minutes and often given a brief weather report.  Half the ship’s company eats breakfast at 6:20am, prepared by the steward and assistant steward and someone who is a rotating steward for the day, and the other half eats at 7am. 

Members of C Watch, Mackenzie Haberman, Thom Young, and Laura Hansen, on deck from 1pm to 7pm, put their backs into hauling on the main staysail sheet.

The group, called a “watch”, who had been running the ship since 3am, clean the galley, main saloon and living areas before ending their "watch".  Meanwhile, another group has taken over the sailing, science, hourly safety boat checks, weather and cruise reports from 7am to 1pm.  The first job on deck is to turn on the salt water fire hose for a deck wash with several people scrubbing the wet deck with brushes.

As an “Other” I am not on watch, though I love to help with the deck washes or…

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What is the most interesting thing you have found in a plastic sample?

Posted on October 29 2012

Question submitted by King Philip Regional High School

I asked the SEA science staff and shipmates doing research on plastics to answer this question:

The small size of the plastic pieces, in terms of total numbers, and the soccer ball-designed tether ball were most interesting to Tommy Wotten.

This soccer ball-designed tether ball just picked out of the ocean was found with some Japanese debris.  It has the beginnings of its own ecosystem with biofilm and gooseneck barnacles growing on it.

Mike Gil found the number of gooseneck barnacles on the first buoy we brought aboard shocking.  Barnacles grew on top of each other, creating chains of up to five with other organisms living on top of them.

Planes crabs and a sea slug are some of the organisms Mike found living among the chains of gooseneck barnacles attached to the first float we brought aboard.

Planes crabs and a sea slug are some of the organisms Mike Gil found living among the chains of gooseneck barnacles attached to the first float we brought aboard.

Kristen Mitchell was surprised by the amount…

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What is the largest concentration of plastics you have found so far?

Posted on October 29 2012

Question submitted by King Philip Regional High School

The largest concentration of plastics we have found so far has been nicknamed the “Windrow Tow”.  Just after breakfast on October 16th people on deck started noticing a lot more large and small pieces of plastic than usual.  After a short while we sailed out of the area of high concentration.  We decided to turn the Seamans around realizing we had just gone through a plastic “patch”.  Back in the patch we spent the rest of the morning collecting plastics of all sizes using dip nets, the boat hook, and the neuston net.

The plastic contents of a dip net from the windrow tow, mixed with Porpita porpita and round blue siphonophores, awaits the sharp eyes and tweezers of a plastics counter.

It was determined that the patch was in a windrow.  Using tweezers, a sieve, and a lot of patience, it took more than two days to get to the final count of plastic brought aboard.  The windrow tow had 24,217 pieces of plastic of all sizes, which is equivalent to a concentration of 12 million pieces per square kilometer.  We were excited…

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What do you do for fun?

Posted on October 28 2012

Question submitted by Lewiston High School

The first thing that comes to mind is music.  There are people aboard who play banjo, guitar and ukulele, sing sea chanteys, and play a rhythm instrument, even if it’s a pepper shaker.  It seems like there is music all the time and it’s awesome!

Marina Garland gives Trent Hodges and Tom Klodenski an appreciative smile for their music on the aft deck.

The second thing is special moments like afternoon snack being copepod cookies, a costume party where everyone is supposed to come as something that begins with the letter P, and early Thanksgiving to celebrate the halfway point of our cruise.

Fun is eating copepod cookies for afternoon snack on the aft deck.

I asked some of my shipmates their answer to the question:

Whitney Horstman:  Reading, crafts
Gary Borda:  Hanging out on deck, taking candid photos, exercising
Jon Waterman:  Reading books and taking photos
Patty Goffinet:  This is like summer camp for big kids on a ship.  You’re outside learning new things with fun people.

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Will you recycle the plastics that you collect?

Posted on October 28 2012

Question submitted by Lewiston High School

The tiny pieces of plastic we pick up in our nets will be counted, put in jars, labeled, dried, capped and archived.

The macroplastics like the buoys, tether ball, and large pieces of styrofoam will be archived at SEA if they are of interest, otherwise they will be recycled in Hawaii, if possible.

The tether ball and bottle with Japanese writing brought aboard will either be kept at SEA or recycled in Hawaii, if possible.

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What is it that keeps you going?  How will this voyage contribute to the greater good?

Posted on October 28 2012

Question submitted by Lewiston High School

This is a great question.  Speaking for myself as a member of the crew and not a scientist, it is the excitement of discovery, the thrill of adventure, the lure of the unknown and my love of the ocean that keeps me going.

My most fervent hope is that the research we are doing aboard the Seamans, along with other research on plastics in the ocean, will lead to answers that ultimately result in healthier oceans.

I’ve asked chief scientist Emelia DeForce to answer this question, and she said that what keeps her passion for this type of research is the fact that we know so little about plastic in the ocean ecosystem.  As a scientist, unknown answers to questions pose a huge challenge.  The adventure of being out in the ocean, discovering new things, and gathering information that no one else has in the past is exhilarating.  She feels honored to be a part of this expedition!

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Are organisms adapting to the plastic in the ocean?  If so, would its removal disturb the habitat?

Posted on October 28 2012

Question submitted by Lewiston High School

A boat's bumper floating in the ocean before we brought it aboard.

Yes, organisms appear to be adapting to the plastic in the ocean.  When we pull a buoy or ball or a piece of insulation out of the ocean there is growth of lots of different organisms such as bacteria, algae, gooseneck barnacles and Planes crabs.

Once aboard, we examine the island of life, mostly gooseneck barnacles, that has taken advantage of the bumper as a substrate.

An interesting find on one piece of macroplastic brought aboard today was a limpet, an intertidal species, floating with its plastic island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

Scientists are continuing to research this topic as it is important to understand how the ecosystem of the environment has been affected by the introduction of plastic.

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Can the amount of plastic pollution affect the pH of the water?

Posted on October 28 2012

Question submitted by Lewiston High School

This is an important question that we cannot answer at this time.

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When you find plastic inside a fish, can you tell how long it’s been there?

Posted on October 28 2012

Question submitted by Lewiston High School

I asked Zora McGinnis this question.  One of her projects aboard is to dissect the fish we catch during the cruise and look in their guts for plastic ingestion.  She said it is not possible to tell how long the plastic has been inside the fish.

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How do ocean currents affect plastic breakdown?

Posted on October 28 2012

Question submitted by Lewiston High School

Rather than the currents it is the UV rays of the sun and the wind and wave action in the currents that cause the breakdown of plastics to happen.  Scientists are also trying to understand the role that bacteria play in the breakdown of plastic.  They are asking questions about whether the microbes physically breakdown the plastic through growth, by metabolizing it, or a combination of both.

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Do you tow nets at different depths, or just near the surface?  What are the differences at depth?

Posted on October 27 2012

Question submitted by Washingtonville High School

We have a net system called the MOCNESS that is being used for the first time in its present form aboard the Seamans.  The MOCNESS has separate nets that can be programmed to open and close at different times, allowing us to collect discrete samples at many different depths.

The four nets of the MOCNESS are put overboard before it is lowered into the water using the hydrowinch and the J-frame.

We are using this net system to test whether wind and wave action or epibionts (something that lives on the plastic) can draw the plastics floating on the surface deeper in the ocean.  We are collecting samples at 1, 3, 7 and 10 meters depth.  

When we count the number of pieces of plastic found in each net, we have found that in each set of tows the deepest net (10 m depth) has collected the fewest plastics and the shallowest net (1 m depth) has collected the most.

After the MOCNESS is brought back on deck, the cod ends of each net are placed in…

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What kinds of organisms are likely to suffer from ingesting the plastics you are measuring?

Posted on October 27 2012

Question submitted by Washingtonville High School

You may have heard that sea turtles often mistake floating plastic for the jellyfish and algae they eat, and when they consume it they may die as the plastic blocks their digestive track.  Similarly, dead seabird carcasses have been found to have large amounts of ingested plastic in their guts (for information on albatrosses, visit http://www.oikonos.org/projects/wingedambassadors.htm).  When researchers dissect the stomachs of fish they often find plastic inside.  This was observed on the Plastics at SEA: North Atlantic Expedition in 2010.  

Scientists are still working to discover if the plastic found in fish guts causes the fish or any other organism going up the food chain, including us, harm.  It is possible that plastic pieces can cause internal damage, that they can give a false sense of being "full", and that they could be a source of toxins to the animal tissue.  It is very difficult to determine the consequences of ingesting plastic, but it is probably doing some kind of harm.

Barnacles from plastic rafting communities we’ve brought aboard have been preserved and will be sent to SEA in Woods Hole where scientist…

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Is there any worry about toxins being emitted from the plastics?

Posted on October 27 2012

Question submitted by Washingtonville High School

There is concern about toxins from plastics entering seawater, although very little research has been done on this topic. However, research has shown that persistent organic pollutants (POPs), toxins that are difficult to break down, already present in seawater can sorb, or "stick", to plastic debris.

We are sampling POPs in the air as well as in the ocean for a scientist at the University of Rhode Island (URI), Dr. Ranier Lohmann.  To sample the toxins in the air, there is a container that looks like an aluminum lettuce bowl attached to the satellite antenna on the aft rail.  To sample POPs in seawater, a passive sampling device is attached to the seawater “flow through” system in the lab, which brings in a constant flow of surface seawater.  As controls, there are also samplers in the galley, lab and engine room.

Assistant scientist Chrissy Dykeman changes the sampler in the POPs (persistant organic pollutants) atmospheric sampler container attached to the satellite antenna on the aft rail.

Fish tissue that has been preserved and stored onboard will be sent to Dr. Lohmann's URI lab…

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What is done with the plastics once they are removed from the sea?

Posted on October 27 2012

Question submitted by Washingtonville High School

Please see the question below submitted by Falmouth Academy for a description of the microplastics collected in the net tows.

When a large floating object such as a buoy is brought aboard, everyone with a project involving macroplastics does the sampling that they need.  Then the rest of the biomass is taken off and the object is washed with bleach, left to dry and stored out of the way wherever we can find room.  These objects will be brought back to land and either properly recycled, disposed of, or saved for museum exhibits.

The first float we retrieved, which we named Oscar and deplay as a "man overboard" for weekly drills, floats just off the Seamans before its capture by our crew.

After biological samples were taken, Oscar was cleaned off and given a bleach bath before being stored out of the way on deck.

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Is everyone on the boat working on different projects?

Posted on October 26 2012

Question submitted by Falmouth Academy

There are a number of people onboard working on individual research projects, such as Zora McGinnis who is doing visual surveys for large debris and investigating the guts of fish for ingested plastic; Mike Gil is investigating the communities of organisms living on large debris that is recovered; Kristin Mitchell is collecting samples for selenium analysis that she will carry out back on land; and Greg Boyd is collecting microbial samples for shore analysis.  Others on board are working exclusively on communicating our results by taking photos, writing journal posts, making video blogs, or answering student questions.  The professional crew (mates, assistant scientists, stewards and engineers) have specific jobs to keep the ship running smoothly, and everyone else participates in all these areas, assisting people on deck, in the lab, galley, and engine room.

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Do you analyze your samples right away, or store them for later analysis?  How are they stored?

Posted on October 26 2012

Question submitted by Falmouth Academy

Most of the samples are counted, recorded and stored for further study back on shore.  Once the plastic pieces are counted they are kept in labeled glass vials.  Before being capped they are put into a closed container with a dehumidifier to dry them.  Finally, they are stored in a storage area below decks called the science hold.

Labeled glass vials containing counted plastics from different tows are stored in a container with a dehumidifier before being capped and stored in the science hold.

Greg Boyd uses a luminometer to quantify the amount of bioluminesecent bacteria growing on the plastics in a sample.  He will be able to graph the amounts found in these samples while aboard the Seamans.  He has cultured some bacteria and using a Raman spectrometer, is also able to identify some of the plastic samples aboard.  Both Greg and Kristen Mitchell are scraping biofilm (visible mats of bacteria) off of some of the collected plastic.  They will preserve their samples in the science freezer to be studied at their labs on land-Greg for RNA and DNA analysis and scanning electron microscopy; Kristen for…

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Do you manually count all of the plastic pieces?

Posted on October 26 2012

Question submitted by Falmouth Academy

All the pieces of plastic have been manually counted except on the day we found so many in a windrow.  After counting 17,000 pieces one-by-one, we had to estimate the remaning number.  The final count that day was 24,217.  These counts are done over time with people from different watches as well as off-watch volunteers.

Even microscopic plastic collected by filtering seawater is counted by hand.  The organic material in a Petri dish sample is dyed, leaving the plastic to show up more clearly under a microscope so it can be counted. 

Greg Boyd, Whitney Horstman and Marina Garland painstakingly use tweezers to remove and count plastic from buckets storing one day’s tow.

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What is the speed of the boat, on average?

Posted on October 26 2012

Question submitted by Falmouth Academy

When we are not conducting any scientific activities we are averaging a speed of 3 to 5 knots (nautical miles per hour), or about 5 to 7 mph (miles per hour).  The winds have not been favorable for us to go faster so far.

We "heave to", or orient the ship to the wind so that forward motion has stopped, in order to deploy the carousel, a piece of equipment containing water collection bottles (Niskin bottles), as well as instrumentation to measure temperature, salinity, depth and other water properties.  We typically slow the ship to a speed of 2 knots in order to tow the plankton nets.

C Watch works on deck to tighten or loosen the sails by easing or hauling on their lines, and to furl (take down) or unfurl (put up) different sails to change the Seamans’ speed.

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Is there another way to gather plastic samples, other than in plankton nets?

Posted on October 26 2012

Question submitted by Falmouth Academy

Noah Citron collects seawater in a bucket.  A known volume will be filtered in order to remove the microplastic, count and remove it.

One way we gather microplastics other than with a plankton net is to get a bucket of water from over the side of the ship and filter it, collecting the plastic on the filter.  This is a way to collect pieces of plastic that are too small for the nets we use because they pass through the mesh.  The method we’ve used to collect large plastic pieces such as buoys is by bringing the Seamans as close as possible to the object and bringing it aboard using the boat hook and a dip net.  Finer mesh dip nets are used by individuals to collect small plastic fragments and objects off the side of the boat.

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Why are plastic amounts so different in bodies of water so close together?

Posted on October 26 2012

Question submitted by Falmouth Academy

One reason for amounts of plastic to differ from place to place is the formation of eddies, smaller spirals of current within the gyre.  Because the gyre is so large and the wind and currents are so dynamic, there is not one central location of plastics.  Windrows of plastic can also form on the surface that are similar to snowdrifts or sand drifts on a beach.  The largest concentration we’ve seen by far were collected along a windrow.

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Are more plastics accumulated in the deep ocean?

Posted on October 26 2012

Question submitted by Falmouth Academy

We do not know if more plastic has accumulated in the deep ocean than at the sea surface.  Right now we are studying plastic on the surface of the water in the North Pacific subtropical gyre, which is a huge area of ocean where prevailing winds, currents, and the rotation of the Earth cause the surface ocean to move in a clockwise rotation in the northern hemisphere (and counter-clockwise in the subtropical southern hemisphere).  The plastics that float are carried by the gyre currents towards its center.  The time it takes to transport the plastic from land to the gyre can take weeks to years, which gives the sun and wind plenty of time to break plastic down into the tiny pieces we see most frequently.

 

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Do ocean currents and plastic removal from one area affect the amount of plastic in another area?

Posted on October 26 2012

Question submitted by Falmouth Academy

We are collecting such a minute amount of plastic in the small areas we sample that it probably does not affect the amount of plastic we collect in another area.  You are right on target thinking about wind and ocean currents transporting plastic—this is the primary way that plastic is transported at the sea surface!

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What has been the best part of the trip so far?

Posted on October 24 2012

Question submitted by Packer Collegiate Institute

For me it was the first, clear, moonless night seeing the brilliant stars away from the lights of land; the Milky Way glowed across the sky.  At the same time bioluminescence sparked in the bow wave.

I asked some of my shipmates this question:
Kellie Jensen:  being out on the bowsprit
Hilary Hoagland-Grey:  working really hard then laughing with the people aboard
Matt Ecklund:  going aloft as we left San Diego and seeing a beach I went to as a child with my family
Trent Hodges:  getting to know all the unique, intelligent people aboard
Christa Choi:  when we pulled up my first neuston tow, the noctophores
Noah Citron:  mornings resting on the fisherman (sail), which is stowed on top of the lab house
Bart DiFiore:  being outside of sight of land and learning the stars

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Is there time to analyize, reflect and discuss findings while you are at sea?

Posted on October 24 2012

Question submitted by Packer Collegiate Institute

Working aboard a boat means living 24/7 in close quarters with everyone else, so there is a lot of time for the scientists aboard to analyze, reflect and discuss findings with their colleagues, probably even more than with scientists in shore labs.  For the rest of the crew, there are classes four afternoons a week where there are science updates.  Often the class topic is an update on one of the science projects aboard.  All the people aboard who are volunteer crew spend time assisting with the science during their watches.  With the study of plastics in the ocean being the focus of this cruise, any deployment of nets or interesting find draws a crowd of interested people and is the topic of discussion for days.

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How are the data being organized?

Posted on October 24 2012

Question submitted by Packer Collegiate Institute

As first assistant scientist, Katy Hunter is responsible for collecting the data generated onboard.  There are specific paper data sheets for each type of deployment.  The data from these  data sheets are entered into Excel spreadsheets on the computer and then sorted into folders for the different deployments (ex. neuston tow, MOCNESS tow, manta tow).   Much of the data is also entered into a free program called Ocean Data View, which allows us to easily visualize patterns in the data.

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How do you measure/quantify the breakdown in the plastic?

Posted on October 24 2012

Question submitted by Packer Collegiate Institute

On the ship we do not have a way to measure the degradation of the plastic that we collect.  Instead, we are collecting and preserving the plastic for analysis on shore.  Greg Boyd is preserving different sizes of plastic and biofilms found on it to look at the mechanical breakdown of plastic and the possible chemical breakdown by bacteria during further research in labs in Woods Hole.

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How are the plastics being analyzed?

Posted on October 23 2012

Question submitted by Packer Collegiate Institute

The purpose of this expedition is to collect and quantify the plastics and the organisms living on them.  The only analysis being done at sea is by Greg Boyd, who can determine the type of plastic brought aboard using a Raman spectrometer, and whether or not there are microbes on the microplastics using a luminometer. 

Greg holds a centrifuge tube with a plastic sample that will be preserved in a freezer in the science hold (storage area below decks) for analysis after the expedition.

Back in Woods Hole, MA  he will do DNA, RNA, and scanning electron microscopy analysis of his preserved samples.  Others will also analyze their samples in labs back ashore, including Mike Gil who will identify organisms found on large plastic debirs, and Kristen Mitchell who will analyze samples for selenium concentration. 

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What are the most essential pieces of equipment for your research?  Why?

Posted on October 23 2012

Question submitted by Packer Collegiate Institute

Chrissy Dykeman models the boat hook, essential equipment for hauling large pieces of floating plastic debris aboard.

There are many different research projects on plastics being carried out aboard the Robert C. Seamans.  One piece of equipment that seems universally important is the GPS.  When there is no landmark, just blue ocean as far as you can see in every direction, this piece of equipment becomes essential to document the coordinates (latitutde, longitude) where sampling was done.

I asked the science crew aboard for answers more specific to their own work:

Mike Gil, studying organisms that colonize large pieces of plastic (macroplastic), felt having a camera was essential as we have no internet aboard and he is able to document specimens to identify when back on land.

Zora McGinnis, who is doing visual surveys of macroplastic said her eyeballs are most essential.  For dissecting fish to see if they have ingested plastic, fishing gear is most essential.

Chief scientist Emelia DeForce and first assistant scientist Katy Hunter chose the neuston tow as most essential because…

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What are the challenges working in the lab aboard the ship compared to on dry land?

Posted on October 23 2012

Question submitted by Packer Collegiate Institute

The fact that the ship is always moving, sometimes quite a bit, is a challenge for most aboard.  Imagine looking though a microscope at swimming organisms in a Petri dish where the water is also sloshing and you have to count the organisms.  Katy, the senior first assistant scientist aboard the Robert C. Seamans, finds the number of people processing samples, due to the 24-hour watch system aboard, can alter results due to different opinions while analyzing samples, even with standardized procedures.  Greg, SEA research assistant, says the small space and everything having to be secured are challenges.

A related question asked whether or not the unsteady environment could affect any of the scientific results.  While doing scientific data collection and analyses may be more difficult aboard a moving boat, great care is taken so that the results are not affected by the motion.

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How has the amount of plastic in the ocean changed over time?

Posted on October 21 2012

Question submitted by Pacific Boychoir Academy

During class onboard the ship, we learned that plastics were first produced in the late 1800s.  There was very little plastic used in American households before 1940.  As it became more useful, easily disposable, and households and industry depended on it, the amount of plastic used and disposed of grew.  People thought nothing of dumping plastics in the ocean.  The United Nations International Maritime Organization (IMO) became aware of the polluting of the oceans and in 1970 it ratified the "International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships".  It was known as MARPOL (MARine POLlution) but it wasn't put into force until 1980.  Annexes were added to it over the years and with the fifth one in 1988, the dumping of plastics from ships was banned.

SEA data from the North Atlantic Ocean, collected by students over the past 25 years, do not show an increase or decrease in annually-averaged plastic concentrations in the region where floating plastic accumulates.  This was a surprising result to researchers, because it is very likely that the total amount of plastic in the ocean has increased during this time period.  Where has…

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What do you eat?  How do you cook on board?

Posted on October 21 2012

Question submitted by Pacific Boychoir Academy

The quick answer is we eat a lot of good food cooked very carefully.

Shelby (steward), Heidi (assistant steward) and a daily assistant steward rotated among the volunteers, work long hours to provide three meals and three snacks (one during the night since there are deck and science watches all night long) for 38 people every day.

Produce for our trip, fresh off the refrigerated delivery truck, is laid out on cardboard to let the condensation evaporate in the sun before it is brought aboard and stowed.

Stewards aboard SEA's boats have been doing this for 40 years.  The Joy of Cooking cookbook in the galley has written in it the amounts of each ingredient for a dish needed for such a large number of people.  Shelby arranged for the meat, produce, baking ingredients—all the food needed for the entire expedition—to be bought or delivered while the Seamans was being prepared on the dock in San Diego.  She knows, for instance, how many pounds of chicken to purchase and how much is needed for a meal so she can plan how many chicken…

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What made you want to go on this expedition?

Posted on October 21 2012

Question submitted by Pacific Boychoir Academy

I know that for the Sea Education Association (SEA), having a research cruise on plastics in the Pacific Ocean to add to the information they've collected on their student cruises on this subject will increase their knowledge about plastic concentrations in this ocean.   They have been cataloguing plastics in the North Atlantic for twice as many years through sampling by students and recently from the Plastics at SEA: North Atlantic Expedition 2010.  Raising awareness of, researching, and protecting our oceans is one of the highest priorities for SEA.  

For the scientists aboard, this expedition is an opportunity to have a research boat to take them where the ocean plastics are so they can increase their knowledge of the amount of plastic, how it moves in the ocean, what life grows on it, and how it affects that life and the water around it.  I would guess that most of my shipmates are aboard because of their love of the ocean, sailing, adventure and a chance to make a difference by raising awareness of plastic pollution in the oceans.   

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What has been the most challenging part of your trip so far?

Posted on October 21 2012

Question submitted by Pacific Boychoir Academy

Shelby, our steward, found the very rocky seas the past couple days to be challenging, in terms of keeping everything in the pots.

Tom is on board the Robert C. Seamans as chief engineer for the first time.  The challenge for him has been learning everything on the boat in a short time.  (That goes for the volunteers, outreach people and staff who have not sailed on the Seamans before, too.)

The most challenging part of this trip for our captain, Jason, has been the constant head winds (winds coming from the direction we want to sail) that have caused us to do too much motoring rather than sailing.

Emelia, the chief scientist, sees keeping up with processing the large number of samples being brought aboard as the greatest challenge for science.

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Do you use any plastic products or equipment onboard the ship?

Posted on October 20 2012

Question submitted by Pacific Boychoir Academy

This is a very timely question for us.  We recently had a class on the history of the use of plastics.  I was surprised to find out that they were originally invented to cut down on the use of natural products such as ivory and trees.  There was a lively discussion about plastics in our life being a good thing versus a bad thing.  We do indeed use plastics on board, especially for science, since much of this equipment is inexpensive, lightweight and hard to break in a lab aboard a moving ship.  We realize that the use of plastics has been very helpful in many areas of our lives including science and medicine.

Tommy Wootton and Marina Garland check out the Niskin bottles before a hydrocast in the wet lab.  The Niskin bottles, the tubing by the sink, and even the coiled lines are made of plastic.  Can you see anything else?

SEA is very conscious about the environment so plastic pollution in the ocean is taken very seriously. You won't find styrofoam cups or plastic utensils aboard.  Everything used for eating is reusable.

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Have you seen any animals that have been harmed or killed by plastics?

Posted on October 20 2012

Question submitted by Pacific Boychoir Academy

We have not seen any animals that have been harmed or killed by plastics so far.  We are in an area of the ocean where we don't see many macrofauna such as whales, dolphins or seabirds.  There is an occasional albatross flying by, or petrals at night.  No plastics were found in the stomachs of the yellowfin tuna or mahi mahi that were caught from a fishing line off the aft deck.

Check out this website for more information on the impacts on seabirds:
http://www.oikonos.org/projects/wingedambassadors.htm

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What is the most challenging part about being away at sea?

Posted on October 19 2012

Question submitted by Bainbridge High School

For me, on this trip, it's not being able to see our website, or know what is happening in the world.

I polled several of my shipmates:
Andy:  the wet, dank, musty feel of everything.
Laura:  missing family at home.
Madelyn:  not having unlimited access to chocolate.
Kim:  a lack of solitude.

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How many people does it take to raise the mainsail?

Posted on October 19 2012

Question submitted by Bainbridge High School

A minimum number to safely raise the mainsail is 14 people.  We use as many as 30 people.

Most of the Seamans crew help raise the mainsail.  Photo by Jon Waterman.

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Are you testing water quality in the area where plastics are found?

Posted on October 19 2012

Question submitted by Bainbridge High School

Yes, we test the water for nutrients such as phosphates and nitrate, and for chlorophyll a.  One deployment we use to test the water is the hydrocast, which consists of a "carousel" holding twelve Niskin bottles that are programmed to close and collect seawater at different depths.

The carousel is lowered into the water to a specific depth on a hydrowire with the Niskin bottles open. As it is raised up to the surface the Niskin bottles close, collecting water samples at pre-programmed depths.
 

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Why are you so worried about invasive species on plastic?  Large logs and branches can float too.

Posted on October 19 2012

Question submitted by Bainbridge High School

You are correct in stating that species have been traveling across oceans from one land mass to another on natural floating objects as long as they have existed.  With the growing number of plastic "rafts" among the natural ones, the chance that invasive species will colonize a new habitat may be greatly increased.

A piece of styrofoam insulation harbors a tiny island of organisms that float with it across the ocean.  Planes crabs and gooseneck barnacles are visible in this photo.

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How would researchers study the amount of denser plastics in the middle and benthic zones?

Posted on October 19 2012

Question submitted by Bainbridge High School

We were given the opportunity to try out a net system called the MOCNESS that can sample different depths of water.  One of the goals of this cruise is to investigate whether wind and wave action can drive the floating plastic below the sea surface.

Members of the science watch deploy the MOCNESS to look for plastic below the sea surface.

We know there are types of plastic that don't float.  There is an instrument called a sediment trap that ocean researchers use to measure the amount of particles, such as detritus and perhaps plastic, that fall to a certain depth or to the ocean floor.

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Are you afraid to see things you’ve heard about like the garbage patches?

Posted on October 19 2012

Question submitted by Bainbridge High School

On October 16 we went through an area thick with plastics, yet even though we passed a number of large objects such as buoys, styrofoam insulation and a tire, you had to look closely at the surface of the water to see the thousands of tiny floating pieces of plastic.  Using the boat hook, dip nets and a neuston net tow we were able to collect a large sampling of both tiny "microplastics" and larger "macroplastics" from this area.

Greg Boyd picks plastic pieces out of a dip net.

Because of the possibility of there being large debris from the tsunami in Japan, the mate on deck does a three-mile radar check every ten minutes to make sure the Robert C. Seamans doesn't collide with any large debris that might not be immediately visible from the ship.

I'm not afraid of finding a solid "patch" of plastic because that's not how plastics are distributed in the ocean.  I am upset at the thought of all this plastic in our oceans, and maybe a little disgusted.  What I'm afraid of are the consequences for…

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What are you planning to do with the plastic when you find it?  Are you removing or cataloging it?

Posted on October 14 2012

Question submitted by King Philip Regional High School

Trent Hodges, Chrissy Dykeman and Emelia DeForce pick tiny pieces of plastic out of a bucket filled with the contents of a neuston tow.

All the plastic that is collected in the nets is counted and archived for later research onshore.  Large pieces that we sight from the deck will be noted along with the date and GPS coordinates (latitude/longitude).  If we can safely collect some of these pieces, and have room to store them, we will.  All of the large and small plastic objects we collect have marine organisms living on them.  They will be documented and preserved for later studies back on land.

The great majority of pieces of plastic caught in our nets are smaller than your pinky fingernail.

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How will you be measuring the extent of the “patch”?

Posted on October 14 2012

Question submitted by King Philip Regional High School

Zora McGinnis looks for pieces of plastic visible from the deck during one of her hour-long observations.

What I most want you to understand is plastic concentrations are not uniform in the gyre.  In other words, there are small areas within the gyre that can accumulate more plastic than others because of eddies, wind, and wave action.  Also, most of the plastic is in small pieces, some even microscopic so you can’t actually see them from the ship!  You have to put a net in the water and drag it on the surface, bring it onboard, and look at the contents of the net.  We will collect plastic below the surface of the water with a net called a MOCNESS.  The samples from the surface will be collected using a manta net and a neuston net.  To look at macroplastic, or large plastic objects that can be seen with the naked eye from the deck of the ship, we will do visual surveys.  Zora McGinnis is onboard to document macroplastic during four one-hour-long watches per day.  She counts and records data for each piece…

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Any storms yet?  If so, how do you deal with them?

Posted on October 13 2012

Question submitted by King Philip Regional High School

We’ve been lucky so far with fair weather except for a few squalls.  This has been helpful for all the science that requires deploying instruments over the side of the ship.  Most likely this science would have to stop in a severe storm.

During a storm normal ship operations change in ways to keep everyone safe.  Sails are taken down to lessen the effects of the wind.  The largest sail, the mainsail, can be reefed (made smaller) and there is a smaller, stronger try sail aboard that can be put up in place of the main in very strong winds so we still have sail to help us steer, but not enough for the wind to heel us over too far. If waves are large, jack lines (ropes) are strung from the bow to the aft deck (front to back of the boat) along the decks on both sides for people who need to handle sails to clip on from their harness so they won’t fall overboard.  Hatches and doors are closed to keep water from washing below decks and only people who are needed would…

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Will you be able to trace where the plastics come from and how old they are?

Posted on October 12 2012

Question submitted by King Philip Regional High School

The boat hook and dip net are used to bring our first buoy and the organisms living on it aboard.

This is a very good question that scientists would love to better understand!  Right now we look for indications such as identification numbers, letters, or characters that may be able to point us to its origin.  For example, the first object we collected was a buoy that had Asian characters on it, our only hint of its origin.  In terms of age, plastic is degraded due to exposure by the sun and the sea so we guess that large intact pieces more recently ended up in the ocean than small broken pieces.

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What do you expect to find out?

Posted on October 12 2012

Question submitted by King Philip Regional High School

Mike Gil and Tommy Wootton prepare the neuston net for deployment off the science deck.

The scientists aboard the SSV Robert C Seamans will be estimating the concentration of plastic in the North Pacific subtropical gyre and documenting the ability of wind and waves to drive floating plastic debis below the surface.  They will also identify the type of plastic and the organisms living on plastic debris.  Greg Boyd, a research assistant on board, has a Raman spectrometer that can identify types of plastic.  So far he reports most of the plastic we have collected has been high density polyethylene (HDPE), polypropylene (PP) and polystyrene (PS).  You can find out the types of plastics you use by looking at the number stamped on the bottom of most plastic items.  Are the plastic items you have at home made of the same type of plastic that we have identified on the ship?

One aspect of this research will ultimately allow the scientists to determine if plastic can spread invasive species to new areas.  Some of the plastics and organisms collected will be…

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Coming Soon!

Posted on September 30 2012

Beginning the week of October 7, Classroom Outreach Coordinator Pat Keoughan will be posting questions from our partner schools, which will be answered by the scientists and crew onboard the SSV Robert C. Seamans. Check back soon to learn what kids in grades 5-12 are asking and learning about science and life onboard a sailing research vessel in the Pacific Ocean!

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