Will Tourists Trash Antarctica?

Conservationists are worried that the growing numbers of visitors, and their desire to do more than sit around on ships, might mar one of the few remaining pristine environments on earth:

Tourism is rebounding here five years after the financial crisis stifled what had been a burgeoning industry. And it’s not just retirees watching penguins from the deck of a ship. Visitors are taking tours inland and even engaging in “adventure tourism” like skydiving and scuba diving under the ever-sunlit skies of a Southern Hemisphere summer.

In a remote, frozen, almost pristine land where the only human residents are involved in research, that tourism comes with risks, for both the continent and the tourists. Boats pollute water and air, and create the potential for more devastating environmental damage. When something goes wrong, help can be an exceptionally long way off.

The downturn triggered by the economic meltdown created an opportunity for the 50 countries that share responsibility through the Antarctic Treaty to set rules to manage tourism, but little has been done. An international committee on Antarctica has produced just two mandatory rules since it was formed, and neither of those is yet in force.

“I think there’s been a foot off the pedal in recent years,” said Alan Hemmings, an environmental consultant on polar regions. “If it takes five years, 10 years to bring even what you agree into force, it’s very difficult to micromanage these sorts of developments.”

Antarctic tourism has grown from fewer than 2,000 visitors a year in the 1980s to more than 46,000 in 2007-08. Then the numbers plummeted, bottoming out at fewer than 27,000 in 2011-12.

Humans have an unyielding desire for self-gratification: to go new places, see new things, impress their friends at cocktail parties. And they rarely think about–or care much about–the subtle ways in which their presence affects the very ecosystems they have come to admire. They love it to death.

Whenever I visit one of the world’s natural wonders I feel both awe and sadness–sadness at how crowds and commercialism have devalued and demeaned the site. The latest place I experienced this was Niagara Falls, which is a mesmerizing natural feature as long as you keep your eyes on the astounding flow of water and don’t let them stray to the shores, where casinos, chain hotels, fast food franchises, malls, and schlock have overgrown both banks.

Antarctica has been protected from this invasion by the Southern Ocean. But every barrier eventually and increasingly yields to the lure of commercial profit. That means more noise, more pollution, more garbage, more displacement and irritation for the wildlife, and a greater potential for inadvertent disaster like fuel spills. Whatever regulations and guidelines that do get created, if any do, will favor the idea of easy tourism. And no doubt we’ll hear the argument that to save and protect Antarctica first we have to love it. And to love it we have to see it.

I would love to go to Antarctica, but to me the over-riding value that humans should take with them into the wild is: do no harm, leave no trace. That will make it harder for thousands, or millions, of tourists to access remote ecosystems. But if we can’t go to a place without destroying or degrading it, we shouldn’t go at all. Seeing and immersing yourself in a spectacular natural environment is not a right. It is not there simply for your amusement. Going into the deep wild is a privilege and it comes with a responsibility to protect.

So my regulation for Antarctic tourism would be very simple: no engines. Sail there, and paddle once you arrive. Earn the right the visit. You won’t trash the place you are admiring, and I guarantee the experience will be far more rewarding.

Forget Godzilla. What About Japanese Tsunami Debris?

Already on Hawaiian beaches, and in Hawaiian ocean life. And coming soon to a west coast beach near you. It’s like a malign Butterfly effect.

Here’s CNN:

In her lab, Jantz sliced open the stomach of a lancetfish for CNN. You may never have heard of the lancetfish, a sometimes 4- to 6-foot long fish with enormous teeth. But bigeye and yellow fin tuna eat lancetfish. Tuna ends up on our plates.

Jantz pulled out a 12 by 12 piece of indigestible black plastic. “It would be difficult to pass through the system,” said Jantz. “I’ve found several fish with the same black plastic bag, just like this, even larger. If it gets to a certain size, the fish is going to feel like it’s full.”

Jantz conducted a study that included 64 fish of varying species. Twelve percent of them, she said, contained plastic. When she looked just at lancetfish, 45% had plastic. “One concern that we have and don’t know is if any chemicals from the plastic are absorbed into the tissue of the fish, which is a problem if consumed by a fish that we consume. That’s definitely the next step, what is the impact?”

Across the island in David Hyrenbach’s lab, the impact of plastic debris is apparent among the animal species he studies: birds. Hyrenbach cut open the bellies of some albatross for CNN. Plastic pieces spilled out of the belly of a 2-month-old albatross. Eighty percent of the stomach was packed with plastic.

Hyrenbach, an assistant professor of oceanography at Hawaii Pacific University, pulled out a small bottle top. “Toothpaste top?” he said. “No, cap of a medicine tube.” He reached into the stomach again. “Oh, it’s a brush, you see?” There were the unmistakable bristles of a hairbrush.

“Morally, this is terrible. How is this possible? Majestic, far ranging, beautiful birds, in a pristine place of the pacific, the northwest Hawaiian islands, you open them up and this is what you find,” said Hyrenbach.

He grabbed a box, packed with toy soldiers, lighters and brushes. He explained that he pulled all the items out of albatross from Hawaii. “Every bird I looked at had plastic. Some had a little bit. Some had a lot. Everybody we looked at had plastic.”

Screen Shot 2013-03-13 at 5.03.22 PM

Plastic (Not) Fantastic

If you think humanity is getting ready to trash the Arctic Ocean, now that the Arctic ice is receding and the oil companies are getting ready to go to town with their drilling rigs, you don’t have it quite right. Because we are already trashing the Arctic Ocean, and a recent study revealed that its floor is littered with human debris:

Bremerhaven, 22nd October 2012. The seabed in the Arctic is increasingly strewn with litter and plastic waste. As reported in the advance online publication of the scientific journal Marine Pollution Bulletin by Dr. Melanie Bergmann, biologist and deep-sea expert at the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research in the Helmholtz Association. The quantities of waste observed at the AWI deep-sea observatory HAUSGARTEN are even higher than those found in a deep-sea canyon near the Portuguese capital Lisbon.

For this study Dr. Melanie Bergmann examined some 2100 seafloor photographs taken near HAUSGARTEN, the deep-sea observatory of the Alfred Wegener Institute in the eastern Fram Strait. This is the sea route between Greenland and the Norwegian island Spitsbergen. “The study was prompted by a . When looking through our images I got the impression that plastic bags and other litter on the seafloor were seen more frequently in photos from 2011 than in those dating back to earlier years. For this reason I decided to go systematically through all photos from 2002, 2004, 2007, 2008 and 2011,” Melanie Bergmann explains.

The result was the realization that the amount of trash on the sea floor has about doubled over the past decade. Not good, because here is the consequence:

Melanie Bergmann is unable to determine the origin of litter from photographs alone. However she suspects that the shrinking and thinning of the Arctic sea ice may play an important role. “The Arctic sea ice cover normally acts as a natural barrier, preventing wind blowing waste from land out onto the sea, and blocking the path of most ships. Ship traffic has increased enormously since the ice cover has been continuously shrinking and getting thinner. We are now seeing three times the number of private yachts and up to 36 times more fishing vessels in the waters surrounding Spitsbergen compared to pre-2007 times,” Melanie Bergmann says. Furthermore, litter counts made during annual clean-ups of the beaches of Spitsbergen have shown that the litter washed up there originates primarily from fisheries.

The main victims of the increasing contamination of the seafloor are the deep-sea inhabitants. “Almost 70 percent of the plastic litter that we recorded had come into some kind of contact with deep-sea organisms. For example we found plastic bags entangled in sponges, sea anemones settling on pieces of plastic or rope, cardboard and a beer bottle colonised by ,” Melanie Bergmann says.

When sponges or other suspension feeders come into contact with plastic, this may cause injuries to the surface of their body. The consequence: the inhabitants of the sea bed are able to absorb fewer food particles, grow more slowly as a result, and probably reproduce less often. Breathing could also be impaired. Furthermore, plastic always contains chemical additives, which have various toxic effects. “Other studies have also revealed that plastic bags that sink to the seafloor can alter the gas exchange processes in this area. The sediment below then becomes a low oxygen zone, in which only few organisms survive,” Melanie Bergmann says.

Plastic, and what to do about it is an ungodly difficult problem. It permeates every part of our lives and it is so pervasive that it is almost impossible to Continue reading “Plastic (Not) Fantastic”

Must Read: “The Ocean Of Life”

If you want to know pretty much everything on how humanity has exploited and damaged the oceans, since the first humanoid fashioned a crude fish spear or fish hook, then Callum Roberts’ new book “The Ocean Of Life” should be next on your book pile.

Here’s a review in the Wall Street Journal, by my friend Bruce Knecht, who, after an introductory quibble, writes:

Having made this point, I need to now jump up and down myself to say that “Ocean of Life” is an excellent and engrossing work. Mr. Roberts, a British professor of marine conservation, has corralled an astonishing collection of scientific discovery, and he conveys it with non-textbook readability.
It must also be said that the unvarnished realities of what has happened to marine life should outrage everyone. Many of the statistics are not new. In the past 30 years, the populations of the largest marine animals have declined by 75%. Some species have been depleted by more than 90%. Other populations are not even counted anymore because they have disappeared entirely. One of the species that now appears to be on a fast track to extinction is the leatherback turtle, the massive reptile that has existed since the time of the dinosaurs. “There is just one leatherback left in the Pacific for every twenty in 1962, the year I was born,” Mr. Roberts writes. [snip]…
…The steady undercurrent to most of this is bad news, and it leads to a disturbing and seemingly inevitable conclusion: The explosion of human populations, our disrespect for ecosystems, and our ever-expanding demand for seafood and everything else will exceed the natural world’s capacities and ultimately put humankind’s survival at risk. Mr. Roberts reminds us that, during the Earth’s more than four-billion-year history, there have been at least five mass extinctions, including an episode of global warming 65 million years ago that killed off the dinosaurs. He believes that we are likely to be heading toward a sixth such catastrophe. This one would differ dramatically from the others both because those who caused it—us—would also be victims, and because the disaster might be avoidable. Mr. Roberts is particularly worried about the possibility of another bout of global warming.
While some say it is not absolutely clear that the current warming trend is a real threat or that it is man-caused, there can be no such doubt about the destruction of ocean life. The traditional belief that the seas are so large as to be impervious to human effects is long gone. The specific problems are mostly familiar: industrial pollution and fertilizer runoffs, the destruction of wetlands and river deltas, rising sea temperatures, and of course too much fishing. Technological advancements have made it possible to scoop up fish far faster than they can reproduce. “Our planetary remodeling did not stop at the shore,” Mr. Roberts writes. “It just came a little later to the sea.”

Okay, so it’s not a very uplifting read, but what did you expect? These are hard times for the oceans. And to the extent the book delivers such a dire prognosis, it is a very helpful reminder that the scale of mitigation we tend to talk about when we talk about addressing climate change and the fate of the oceans is completely inconsistent with the scale of the problem.

We need to amp it up by a couple of orders of magnitude, folks, when it comes to changing the way we live and changing our economies. So thanks, Mr. Roberts, for helping make that clear because so far not that many people seem to be paying attention.

Tsunami Delivery

We all know how much stuff humanity has. And when a tsunami hits alot of it floats away. Currently, the Pacific Ocean is acting as a conveyor belt for an enormous tide of man-made junk that is headed from Japan to either fetch up on California beaches, or dwell for eternity in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. I guess it is a good sign (of growing awareness that stuff matters) that the New York Times editorial board is alarmed, saying:

Scientists at the International Pacific Research Center, based at the University of Hawaii at Manoa in Honolulu, created a computer model to predict where the debris would go. Their animation shows a cloud looping across the northern Pacific, past Hawaii, out to the West Coast and back to Hawaii. They say it may make its first landfall this winter in Midway Island, then in Hawaii in 2012, and the West Coast in 2013. In September, a Russian ship sailing to Vladivostok spotted a fishing boat marked “Fukushima,” a TV, a refrigerator and other trash, validating the predictions.

But awareness is really only the first step toward actually doing anything about all the stuff we think we need (the second should be a progressive consumption tax). In the meantime, it will keep piling up across the natural world.

Here’s what the animation model–a real life disaster movie–looks like.

Enhanced by Zemanta
%d bloggers like this: