An estimated 8 million tons of plastic – things like discarded fishing gear, empty plastic bottles, plastic children’s toys, plastic food containers and more – enter the oceans every year. By the year 2050, scientists think the oceans will fill up with so much of the stuff, they will contain more plastic by weight than fish. This worries scientists, who think these numbers may be underestimates because they are based off measurements of plastic samples skimmed off the ocean’s surface, not below. All that plastic – which breaks up into microscopic bits and is consumed by animals living in, on and near the sea – appears to be sickening and killing many animals, and could even be undermining human health.
In November 2016, then 24-year-old freelance science writer and artist Erica Cirino sailed the most polluted part of the eastern Pacific Ocean – the famed “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” – on a 54-foot, 64-year-old steel bluewater sailboat. Aboard was a group of Danish sailors and scientists collecting plastic and water samples for laboratory analysis, in an attempt to solve some of the mysteries around oceanic plastic pollution.
This was the first group in the Pacific to look for plastic throughout the top layer of water and also well below the surface of the ocean deep into the middle layer of the sea, as opposed to solely on the surface. The trip, from Los Angeles to Honolulu, took 23 days. She worked as a sailor and photojournalist, documenting ocean plastic, ocean life, and the scientists’ work in writing, photos and video.
Following the trip, Cirino, who is based in New York, has published three major stories about the expedition, including a story for Scientific American which was shared on social media by actor and conservationist Leonardo DiCaprio, and a radio interview with NPR station WCAI. This winter she won a Safina Center Kalpana Launchpad Fellowship to fund research travel for future meetings with plastic experts and travels to other ecosystems across the globe that are polluted by plastic. Besides the eastern Pacific Ocean, these trips include world-class plastic research labs in Denmark, which she visited this past winter, and degraded ecosystems in Asia, as well as experts in Los Angeles and the Great Lakes Region.
Date: Monday, September 18
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