SEA Currents: News
April 24, 2014
SEA Scientists estimate total mass of plastic particles littering North Pacific subtropical gyre
SEA Semester® undergraduates aid collection efforts informing plastic “garbage patch” studies in Pacific Ocean
Click here to read the paper in Environmental Science and Technology.
(Woods Hole, Mass - April 24, 2014) An estimated 21,290 metric tons of plastic particles are currently floating in the North Pacific subtropical gyre, with a mass equivalent to 132 Boeing 747 airplanes or 120 blue whales. This estimate, the most complete and accurate evaluation of Pacific Ocean plastic pollution to date, comes from eleven years of plastic debris collection and the efforts of over 1,700 undergraduate students studying abroad with SEA Semester, operated by Sea Education Association (SEA) in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. SEA Semester faculty and scientists, Dr. Kara Lavender Law, Dr. Erik Zettler, Dr. Deb Goodwin, and Skye Moret- in collaboration with colleagues- have recently analyzed and compiled this data into a research paper entitled “Distribution of Surface Plastic Debris in the Eastern Pacific Ocean from an 11-Year Data Set”, published in Environmental Science and Technology. The paper was highlighted as an editor’s choice with the American Chemical Society on April 24, 2014.
SEA Semester study abroad voyages have sailed repeated cruise tracks annually in the Pacific Ocean subtropical gyre since 2001. Every 6-8-week voyage includes twice-daily neuston net tows while the SSV Robert C. Seamans (SEA Semester’s tall sailing ship that operates in the Pacific Ocean) is under sail. Net tows brought in by SEA Semester undergraduate students recover an assortment of biological material, including marine organisms and plant material, as well as, increasingly, plastic fragments (typically smaller than the size of a pencil eraser). Plastic, a highly porous synthetic substrate, is known to absorb toxic chemicals (e.g. DDT, PCBs, PDBEs) from seawater, and may also contain toxic additives; this micro-plastic debris is accessible to a wide variety of marine organisms that may ingest and be exposed to these toxins. According to Dr. Kara Lavender Law, “over the course of the last fifty years, humans have fundamentally changed the ocean with the addition of this long-lasting man-made material. Everything from blue whales to organisms as small as microbes are affected, yet we still don’t fully understand the consequences of this pollution.”
Due to growing interest in ocean pollution and its environmental and human impacts, the science of ocean plastics is a rapidly evolving field, fast becoming an important topic in ocean environmental research. Sea Education Association possesses one of the most complete long-term data sets of plastic marine debris in the world. Since 1986, plastics data has been consistently collected by undergraduate students aboard SEA sailing school vessels in the same ocean locales throughout the North Atlantic Ocean and since 2001, in the Pacific Ocean. Unlike any other study abroad program, SEA Semester includes both on-shore and at-sea components, wherein students spend the first portion of a semester on SEA’s campus in Woods Hole, taking courses ranging from biological oceanography and ocean science to public policy, nautical science and maritime history. These on-shore courses prepare students for the next portion of the program: sailing aboard one of SEA’s sailing school vessels, where, in addition to conducting hands-on, field-based research projects, they also work as members of the ship’s crew. Rigorous academics combined with the adventure of sailing aboard a tall ship create a truly one-of-a-kind study abroad program. All SEA Semester programs are accredited through Boston University, so students may receive up to 18 semester credits in lower and upper division coursework. While the program is renowned for its excellence in the sciences, all SEA Semester programs are interdisciplinary and welcome students from any major. Students also gain valuable experience in other, less definable areas, such as leadership training, group dynamics, and team-building: all areas that help students develop into well-rounded, confident, open-minded and contributing members of society.