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Latest Expedition Journal

October 21:  Day 19

Posted by Emelia DeForce

Blood, Sweat, and Tears:  Quantitative Plasticity

While pulling up garbage from the ocean, you can't imagine the mixed feelings in determining the final number of plastic pieces.  It's difficult to know whether to be excited or disgusted.

Seventy-two hours ago, we finished counting the neuston net contents from the “windrow tow.” The net was deployed at 10:28 am on Oct 16th at a ship speed of two knots for 30 minutes.  The final count took 36 hours, including eight watch rotations and many volunteers who accepted my invitation to join a “plastic picking party.”  By the end of the 36th hour, the lab stank of left-over zooplankton caught in the nets, people were sick of counting plastic shards, and they were all looking at me like I was crazy to have them continuing this most tedious and unrelenting task.  It was time for relief.  

To help finish up the bitter end of this whirlwind, we estimated the last 7,000 pieces using a grid system.  Each box in the grid was filled up with evenly-spaced plastic pieces.  Then we counted 10% of the boxes and came up with an average:  107 pieces of plastic.  This number was multiplied by the total number of boxes used within the grid.  This simple exercise probably saved us about another day of counting (along with my reputation on the boat!).  All tallied and done, we counted 24,214 pieces of plastic.  This translates to a hard-to-fathom concentration of 12 million pieces per square kilometer.

The “windrow tow” compares to the highest concentration of plastics sampled during Plastics at SEA: North Atlantic Expedition 2010 and is potentially the highest concentration ever sampled in the North Pacific.  The message to marine debris researchers?  We still do not fully understand how much plastic has been introduced into our oceans.  

Furthermore, we’re reminded that plastic concentrations in the gyre change based on wind, waves and currents.  The reality is that we may never know how much plastic floats in the ocean.  What scientists can do is start to peel apart how plastic is changing the chemical and biological environment of the ocean.  We are forging forward to do just that during our 38-day expedition dedicated to the study of plastic and its effect on this complex ecosystem.

The Real Source of Windrows

by Raw Gnar (Madelyn Soldner-Sullivan)

For those of you following our journey back at home, you might be wondering if the mental state of the boat is always one of heartbreak, deep thoughts and super scientific analysis. I am here to bring you the other side of the coin.  When we aren’t staring at our reflections in the water pondering life’s greater questions, or making big decisions on bow watch under the stars, we spend the majority of our time in fits of laughter over the hilarious events that occur in such close quarters.

While I am not a scientist by trade, I consider my career of choice as artist to be equivalent in format to that of a scientist.  I come up with questions, use my senses to observe the reality I see and report that information to my audience.  The only difference is that to show my results I use visual and physical images that evoke feelings, while most scientist resort to, in my opinion, plain obtuse graphs, charts and tables that are void of emotion.  As they should be, since it is science, of course.

For the next few weeks you will be seeing my artwork appear as an addendum to several posts when deemed appropriate.  It is my intention to bring to you all the humor, the laugher and the love that is as much a part of this journey as the deep thoughts and feelings are for us aboard the ship.  With creativity, positivity and vulnerability, I bring you the first drawing of the “windrow tow.”

As a refresher, “windrows” are the sea’s equivalent of a washboard on a dirt road. When wind moves over the sea for any given amount of time and at a constant speed, windrows develop in very even swell patterns with consistent currents occurring between the rows.  These windrows could account for some of the plastic clumping that we are seeing on this trip, although some sources point to other explanations...