Life is existing on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

A diverse array of coastal species have adapted to live, survive and thrive on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, says a new paper.

The North Pacific Gyre (NPG) or North Pacific Subtropical Gyre (NPSG) is one of the five major oceanic gyres and covers most of the northern Pacific Ocean. Not only is it the largest ecosystem on Earth but it is the site of a vast collection of marine debris known as Great Pacific Garbage Patch, between California and Hawaii.

According to the researchers of a new study, species that are usually found along coastlines and not the open ocean, have made this floating trash in the Pacific Ocean their homes. This included invertebrates such as crabs and anemones, not only living but also reproducing on the trash.

It appears that coastal species persist now in the open ocean as a substantial component of a neopelagic community sustained by the vast and expanding sea of plastic debris.

The study entailed collecting 105 different pieces of floating plastic marine debris in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre in 2018 and 2019, and identified 484 invertebrates on the70% of the items. 80% of the species are usually found along coastal habitats and not in the open ocean.

According to the study, “Analysis of rafting plastic debris in the eastern North Pacific Subtropical Gyre revealed 37 coastal invertebrate taxa, largely of Western Pacific origin, exceeding pelagic taxa richness by threefold. Coastal taxa, including diverse taxonomic groups and life history traits, occurred on 70.5% of debris items.”

The North Pacific Subtropical Gyre has around 79,000 tons of trash and is “identified as the most heavily plastic-polluted ocean gyre on the globe,” according to the study.

These thriving communities have been possible because plastic takes an exceptionally long time to erode.

Our results demonstrate that the oceanic environment and floating plastic habitat are clearly hospitable to coastal species. Coastal species with an array of life history traits can survive, reproduce, and have complex population and community structures in the open ocean. The plastisphere may now provide extraordinary new opportunities for coastal species to expand populations into the open ocean,” said the authors. 

This discovery suggests that past biogeographical boundaries among marine ecosystems — established for millions of years — are rapidly changing due to floating plastic pollution  accumulating in the subtropical gyres,” said lead author Linsey Haram, research associate at Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC).

Although scientists had previously been aware from other studies that some coastal species colonized marine plastic debris, it was not clear till now that establised coastal communities could persist in the open ocean, all due to the impact of human activities. This means that this debris could transport these species to fragile ecosystems, where they could potentially establish as invasive species.

“The Hawaiian Islands are neighbored in the northeast by the North Pacific garbage patch,” said Nikolai Maximenko, co-author and senior researcher at the UH Mānoa School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology. “Debris that breaks off from this patch constitutes the majority of debris arriving on Hawaiian beaches and reefs. In the past, the fragile marine ecosystems of the islands were protected by the very long distances from coastal communities of Asia and North America. The presence of coastal species persisting in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre near Hawai‘i is a game changer that indicates that the islands are at an increased risk of colonization by invasive species.

“Our study underscores the large knowledge gap and still limited understanding of rapidly changing open ocean ecosystems,” said co-author Gregory Ruiz, senior scientist at SERC. “This highlights the need for dramatic enhancement of the high-seas observing systems, including biological, physical and marine debris measurements.”


Highest air pollution in Bangladesh, China, India, and Pakistan in 2018

AirVisual and Greenpeace have jointly published the World Air Quality Report for 2018, ranking over 3000 cities based on their pollution levels. Out of the total 64% exceeded the WHO’s annual
exposure guideline for fine particulate matter, also known as PM2.5. In the Middle-East and Africa all (100%) of the measured cities exceeded the WHO guideline. In South Asia and South East Asia this was 99% and 95% respectively, while 89% of cities in East Asia also exceeded the target.

The top 50 cities with the highest average PM2.5 levels during 2018, were from China, India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. At a country level, weighted by population, “Bangladesh is the most polluted country on average, closely followed by Pakistan and India, with Middle Eastern countries, Afghanistan and Mongolia also within the top 10”.

PM2.5 is particulate matter measuring up to 2.5 microns in size. It has the most health impact of all commonly measured air pollutants, has a range of chemical makeups and a variety of sources, such as vehicle engines, industry, wood and coal burning. Because of its small size it can penetrate deep into the respiratory system as well as the entire body.

“Air pollution steals our livelihoods and our futures,” Yeb Sano, executive director of Greenpeace Southeast Asia, said in a statement. “In addition to human lives lost, there’s an estimated global cost of 225 billion dollars in lost labour, and trillions in medical costs,” he added.

Photo credit: AirVisual 




Pollution in the UK

While we have been seeing early onset of spring and and enjoying an unusually warm February, there are some worrying issues at hand too.

On Tuesday February 26, 2019, UK residents were warned to restrict outdoor activities because of an increase in pollution in many areas in the country. Our warm weather is due to the air-mass from North Africa, which has also brought Saharan dust. This combined with vehicular and industrial emissions, as well as particles from Europe have all contributed to the increase in countrywide pollution levels.

The Environmental Department, Met Office and the National Weather Service have all warned that the levels will be highest in North England, including in Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester. Meanwhile, air quality in London was close to that of New Delhi, according to the app AirVisual prompting the Mayor’s office to issue alerts. All of these warnings have continued into Wednesday, 27th February, 2019 and is expected to last until Thursday. According to a study by the Royal College of Physicians, approximately 40,000 premature deaths are linked to air pollution.

The increase in pollution levels across the country just goes on to show the failure to bring pollution levels down. While the government has asked 36 of the top polluted cities to submit pollution curbing plans, many have missed the deadlines to do so. Since, 2010, UK’s pollution levels have been high due to nitrogen oxide pollution from diesel vehicles. Bringing it down requires instituting a pollution tax or bringing down the number of diesel vehicles. Effort to do either of these have been very slow due to impacts on local businesses and communities. The government has earmarked an implementation fund of £275m and a £220m clean air fund to minimise local impacts. However, extensive and concrete steps need to be taken immediately to bring down pollution levels, or the country is like to see even more pollution linked deaths and impacts on health.

Photocredit: UK Air - DEFRA