[The following is a transcript from a talk I gave at the 2019 Minerals, Materials, and Society Symposium at the University of Delaware in August, 2019. It has been lightly edited for clarity.]
Good afternoon and thank you all for
coming. I want to change tracks for a bit and scan the horizon to think about
what the future of exploration and monitoring in the high seas might look like
because ocean and conservation technology is in the midst of an evolutionary
shift in who has access to the tools necessary to observe the deep ocean.
This is the Area. Areas Beyond National
Jurisdiction, International Waters, the High Seas, the Outlaw Ocean. It’s the
portion of the ocean that falls outside of national EEZs and is held in trust
by the UN under the Convention on the Law of the Sea as the Common Heritage of
Humankind. It covers 64% of the ocean and nearly half of the total surface of
the Earth. It’s also the region in which most major deep-sea mining ventures
intend to operate.
The Niskin bottle, a seemingly simple device designed to take water samples at discrete depths, is one of the most important tools of oceanography. These precision instruments allow us to bring ocean water back to the surface to study its chemical composition, quality, and biologic constituency. If you want to know how much plastic is circulating in the deep sea, you need a Niskin bottle. If you need to measure chemical-rich plumes in minute detail, you need a Niskin bottle. If you want to use environmental DNA analyses to identify the organisms living in a region of the big blue sea, you need a Niskin bottle.
Niskin bottles are neither cheap nor particularly easy to use. A commercial rosette requires a winch to launch and recover, necessitating both a vessel and a crew to deploy. For informal, unaffiliated, or unfunded researchers, as well as citizen scientists or any researcher working on a tight budget, getting high-quality, discrete water samples is an ongoing challenge.
Overall concerns include a lack of understanding of the problem (including but not limited to the fact that much of the harmful ocean plastic is small and well-dispersed), insufficient structural integrity for a large object that will be deployed in the open ocean (which would result in the object breaking and creating even more ocean garbage), and the fact that this device is designed to aggregate objects of a certain size to remove them from the water but cannot distinguish between plastic and living things.
Mainstream media coverage has been noticeably less critical of the Ocean Cleanup, often presenting the idea as revolutionary and it’s creator as a genius.
Artist’s conception of the Ocean Cleanup, from TheOceanCleanup.com
I am not an expert in ocean plastic pollution. However, the uncritical tone of most mainstream media coverage of the Ocean Cleanup does not seem to correspond with my impression of expert opinion on this matter from speaking with expert colleagues who study this.
Through professional contacts, I developed a list of 51 ocean plastic pollution experts who work in academia, government, and the environmental non-profit sector, and I sent them some questions about the Ocean Cleanup. 15 (4 in academia, 5 each in government and the non-profit sector, and 1 in industry) agreed to participate in an anonymous survey. While this is not (and not intended to be) an exhaustive survey of the entire field of ocean plastic pollution, the broad agreement among a diverse group of experts is telling. Below, please see what they had to say through some representative quotes. Some respondents chose to provide an on-the-record quote, while many chose to remain anonymous out of concerns about reprisal.
I also asked Lonneke Holierhoek, COO of the Ocean Cleanup, to respond to these concerns. Her comments are included in each section.
The oceans belong to all of us. With this simple statement in mind, the Oceanography for Everyone (OfE) project was launched with the goal of making ocean science more accessible. One of the biggest hurdles in conducting ocean science is instrumentation costs, and 4 years ago the OfE team began trying to make one of the most basic ocean science tools, the CTD (a water quality sensor that measures Conductivity-Temperature-Depth), cheaper… much, much cheaper!
Update: legendary oceanographer Dr. Kim Martini stops by to set the record straight on the challenging subject of internal waves. Her comments in bold.
It has been a long time since I’ve made an entry into our long-running, world-famous, Science of Aquaman series. The last few runs have been heavy on high adventure, but light on ocean tidbits for me to nerd out on. I don’t like to force ocean fact into comic fiction unless the opportunity presents itself.
So, with the newest run of Aquaman, starting with issue #50, focusing around a villain named Dead Water, I thought it was the perfect moment to talk about some physical oceanography. And then…
Dead Water. From Aquaman #51.
My hat’s off to Dan Abnett, who beat me to the science punchline. If I had to explain the phenomenon of dead water in a single tweet, it would have been pretty close to this. Well played, sir. Well played.
So what isdead water and why does it make maneuvering a vessel so challenging?
The Niskin bottle, a seemingly simple tube designed to take water samples at discrete depths, is one of the most important tools of oceanography. Coupled with a CTD, an array of Niskin bottles fit into the rosette, a Voltron-esque amalgamation of everything an oceanographer needs to profile the ocean. Niskin bottles are neither cheap nor particularly easy to use. A commercial rosette requires a decent-sized winch to launch and recover, which means you need a vessel and a crew to deploy. For Rogue Ecologist and citizen scientists, getting a high-quality, discrete water sample is a perpetual challenge. With tools like the OpenROV and the soon-to-be-completed EcoDrone, I wanted a Niskin bottle that was light weight and capable of being mounted on both underwater robots and quadcopters with ease.
After a few months of brainstorming and planning, I sat down this Friday and began building a 3D printable Niskin bottle that could be hand deployed or mounted on an OpenROV or drone. While this version is designed around a 1.25 inch acrylic tube, the trigger mechanism can be expanded to fit any size pipe. The trigger is driven by a waterproof servo developed by the good folks over at OpenROV. Everything else can either be purchased off-the-shelf or printed on you home 3D printer. Later this month, I’ll be taking my prototypes out on the RV Blue Heron for field testing in Lake Superior.
Goldstein and Martini’s technical review is essential reading for anyone tracking the progress of The Ocean Cleanup, but there are many additional issues that the Ocean Cleanup has not yet addressed. Here, I present three issues related to the construction and operation of The Ocean Cleanup and the necessary information that, were I in charge of regulating the high seas, would need to know before such a project could be approved.
1. The Ocean Cleanup will be the largest offshore structure ever assembled.
When completed, The Ocean Cleanup will span 100 km of open sea with a massive array of booms and moored platforms. If successfully constructed in the proposed region, the mooring used will be the deepest ever constructed. The booms will stretch across a major oceanic current, interacting with plankton transport and pelagic migrations.
What I want to know: How will The Ocean Cleanup monitor changes in ocean-wide population structure? What community baselines have been established from which ecosystem impact can be assessed? What contingency are in place should catastrophic failure occur? Ultimately, what chronic threshold will be used to trigger a shutdown of the Ocean Cleanup, should major environmental impacts be detected as a result of standard operation, who will access to the data necessary to monitor those impacts, and who will have authority to trigger a shutdown? Read More
North Carolina is well known for both its distinctive barrier islands (making Pamlico Sound the largest lagoon in the U.S.) and highly productive fisheries. Both of these features exist in large part because North Carolina sits that the point where two of the largest ocean currents in the Atlantic meet. From the north, the Labrador Current meanders from the Arctic Circle along the Canadian, New England, and Mid-Atlantic shorelines and crashes into the Gulf Stream at Cape Hatteras, deflecting this warm current off its own shore-hugging course from the south and out across the Atlantic Ocean. Aside from literally defining the shape of the Outer Banks, the collision zone represents the boundary between temperate waters to the north and subtropical waters to the south. This presence of this border means that, depending on the time of year and local weather conditions, you can catch just about any marine fish native to the Northwest Atlantic Ocean off of the Outer Banks.
This satellite image of sea surface temperatures shows the Gulf Stream (warm red current coming from the south) meeting the Labrador Current (cold purple current coming from the north). Image from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (whoi.edu).
“To build a city at the bottom of the sea! Insanity. But where else could we be free from the clutching hand of the Parasites? Where else could we build an economy that they would not try to control, a society that they would not try to destroy? It was not impossible to build Rapture at the bottom of the sea. It was impossible to build it anywhere else.”
Rapture, a city beneath the sea, the crowning achievement of Randian industrialist Andrew Ryan. This atmospheric world of technological wonder and urban decay serves as the setting for one of the greatest video games of all time, Bioshock. The player, finding themselves stranded at sea in a fiery plane crash, makes their way towards a lonely lighthouse, descends into the sunken, desolate city, and unlocks the mysteries surrounding the creation and destruction of a most unusual city.
Rapture. From Bioshock.
Though many questions are answered as the player journeys into the heart of Rapture, collecting audio diaries of its residents along the way, one question still eludes: How deep is Rapture and where, exactly, is it?
The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant is back in the news, with recent reports of continued leaks. Coming on the heels of these new reports is a viral blog post entitled 28 Signs That The West Coast Is Being Absolutely Fried With Nuclear Radiation From Fukushima. The article is a paranoid, poorly reasoned attempt to link the tragedy of the Fukushima disaster to just about every environmental issue facing the US west coast in the last few months. At its best, it’s an illogical piece of post-modern absurdism. At its worst, its empirically false and intentionally misleading, rife with out-of-context quotes and cherry-picked data. The author had 28 chances to make a single reasonable point, and every single one rang hollow.