Sunday, February 6, 2011

Ocean rangers chart journey of garbage

Trio will speak about their 3-year expedition to study pollution
Perhaps every voyage has a quest, but when Hugh Patterson and brothers Ryan and Bryson Robertson put out to sea in 2007 they had nothing like a Northwest Passage or the mythical continent of Atlantis in mind.
The three, all graduates of the University of Victoria's school of engineering, had a much more tangible goal when they weighed anchor in La Paz, Mexico, for a three-year journey around the world -garbage. Or, more precisely, plastic garbage.
They decided that charting how plastic is spread around could go a long way toward understanding and dealing with the problem of ocean pollution.
"In terms of garbage that ends up in the ocean, plastic is the most prevalent," Patterson said. "And it's the stuff that floats and ends up on beaches, generally. You find a few other things, but pretty much it's plastic."
The journey in the 40foot vessel Khulula ended in Victoria last September, and the three travellers will be sharing the story of their foray across three oceans at UVic on Monday. It is one of the opening events for UVic Alumni Week.
Introducing them will be Martin Taylor, president and CEO of Ocean Networks Canada, which oversees NEPTUNE Canada and VENUS, undersea observatories led by UVic researchers.
Taylor said the trip gathered valuable information.
"What their work reinforces is the vulnerability of our oceans to a combination of both natural and human factors," he said. "In the case of the pollution that they're documenting, it's primarily the human factors that are fundamentally responsible."
The efforts of the trio "point out again the vital importance of our ability to monitor consistently and continually ocean change and the consequences of those changes for the health of our planet," Taylor said.
The voyage, dubbed the OceanGybe Expedition, had plenty of other aspects -surfing, adventure, seeing the world, learning about different cultures -but the graduates wanted to find out for themselves how humans have impacted some of the farthest reaches of the planet.
"The main objective was to look at plastic that was arriving from other places at remote islands, and what was not coming from the local population," Patterson said. "We considered trade winds and currents and how they move plastic around the world."
The name OceanGybe was chosen because a "gybe" is a sailing manoeuvre that causes a change in direction. And change, Patterson said, is what is needed to preserve the ocean environment.
The team found lots of unusual things, but nothing that rivalled the prevalence of one particular object.
"The one item you find everywhere, all over the beaches, is water bottles," Patterson said. "Bottle caps, too."
Other than that, it wasn't the objects themselves that were particularly unusual, it was the quantity.
"We found 30 toothbrushes on a remote beach and we would find all sorts of Glow Sticks -they're used a lot in fishing. On one especially dramatic beach, we found 330 flip-flops."
The beach with the flipflops, downwind from Indonesia, was also cluttered with other trash.
"Usually we looked at 100 metres of beach to count the plastic, but this place it was so bad we only looked at 10 metres."
Patterson noted that other sailors have seen similar things, masses of garbage and plastic in unexpected places. It was one particular example of that -the collection of detritus in the so-called North Pacific Gyre, a mix of currents that has brought in enough refuse to form a huge floating landfill -that helped inspire the trip.
Patterson said there is clearly a problem in the oceans, although solutions are at hand.
"From what we saw, the problem is pretty extensive, but the changes that we need to make are so simple. We have the answers, we just need to consume less in our day-to-day lives and stop treating plastic as this one-time disposable material."
Everyone can play a part, he said. "None of us is living a perfect existence or a carbon-neutral existence, so we just do what we can."
The men's presentation starts at 5: 30 p.m. Monday in room A104 of UVic's Bob Wright Centre. Admission is free, and a reception will precede the presentation, at 4: 30 p.m.

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