Posted by jlwile on January 10, 2011In my previous post, I promised to discuss two scientific frauds that have recently come to light. The first had to do with research related to vaccines. The second one is the topic of this post, and it has to do with an environmental issue. The environmental issue is a real one, but unfortunately, it has been exaggerated to such an extent that many will pass it off as just another environmental extremist scare now that the science related to it is better understood. To get an idea of the exaggeration, you can click on the YouTube video and see how Good Morning America reported on it.
The man being interviewed in the video is oceanographer Charles J. Moore. He is generally credited for discovering the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” which is a real environmental problem. Oceans have constant circular currents called gyres. When a bit of plastic gets caught in such a current, the current tends to trap it there. Over time, this leads to a large concentration of plastic in that area of the ocean.
In general, most ocean travelers avoid the gyres, as they are a nuisance to navigate through and do not hold a wealth of the kind of ocean life people typically want to see or harvest. However, he and his team decided to travel through the gyre that exists in the North Pacific. He calls it a “subtropical high,” and here is his description as found in the journal Natural History1
Yet as I gazed from the deck at the surface of what ought to have been a pristine ocean, I was confronted, as far as the eye could see, with the sight of plastic. It seemed unbelievable, but I never found a clear spot. In the week it took to cross the subtropical high, no matter what time of day I looked, plastic debris was floating everywhere: bottles, bottle caps, wrappers, fragments.
This is what was eventually named “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch.” In his article, Moore says that another marine researcher, Curtis Ebbesmeyer, estimates the size of the garbage patch to be roughly that of the state of Texas. He and some colleagues also published a paper that supposedly measured the mass of plastic found in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and found that it is six times the mass of the plankton found there.2
Now all this seems incredibly dire. However, it is nothing more than a fraud.
Angelicque White is a serious marine scientist at Oregon State University. She has been studying what the data actually say about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and she finds that neither Moore’s description nor Ebbesmeyer’s estimate is consistent with the data. First, she says:
The amount of plastic out there isn’t trivial…But using the highest concentrations ever reported by scientists produces a patch that is a small fraction of the state of Texas.
In fact, she finds that the fraction is about 0.01. Yes, rather than being as big as the state of Texas, it is about 1% the size of that great state.
How does she know this? Because she has looked at what serious scientists have reported in the literature, and she has actually participated in one of the few expeditions that has tried to accurately measure the amount of debris in the patch. Her interest is to determine the plastic’s effect on the microorganisms that live in the ocean.
Speaking of microorganisms, what about Moore’s figure of plastic outweighing plankton by a factor of six to one?
We have data that allow us to make reasonable estimates; we don’t need the hyperbole. Given the observed concentration of plastic in the North Pacific, it is simply inaccurate to state that plastic outweighs plankton…
And what is the plastic’s effect on the microorganisms in the ocean? It’s not very clear. For example, plastic is known to absorb toxic chemicals. In her research she has found that plastic is actually “prime real estate” for some microorganisms, because it absorbs toxins that would otherwise harm them. Of course, that doesn’t mean it is good for the ecosystem as a whole. As she says:
On one hand, these plastics may help remove toxins from the water…On the other hand, these same toxin-laden particles may be ingested by fish and seabirds. Plastic clearly does not belong in the ocean.
In the end, here’s what she says regarding the best way to visualize the Great Pacific Garbage Patch:
If we were to filter the surface area of the ocean equivalent to a football field in waters having the highest concentration (of plastic) ever recorded…the amount of plastic recovered would not even extend to the 1-inch line.
Now don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that the plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is no big deal. It most certainly is. In fact, that’s what makes this fraud so insidious. When someone like Moore comes along and paints such an unrealistic picture of a serious problem and the media pick up on it, that picture becomes the definition of the problem. When a serious scientist like White then comes along and tells you what the problem really looks like, it suddenly doesn’t seem very bad at all.
In the end, the Great Pacific Garbage patch is a problem, and it is a serious problem. However, in my opinion, Moore and Ebbesmeyer have made the problem worse, because they have given people a reason to downplay it.
1. Charles Moore, “Trashed: Across the Pacific Ocean, Plastics, Plastics, Everywhere,” Natural History 112:46-51, 2003.
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2. Moore, Charles, Moore, S. L., Leecaster, M. K., and Weisberg, S. B., “A Comparison of Plastic and Plankton in the North Pacific Central Gyre,” Marine Pollution Bulletin 42:1297-1300, 2001.
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