Monday, February 20, 2012

Global pollution and rubber ducklings

Original picture: Kim Steele

Which is the most contaminating country in the world? Just google this question and you will find dozens of more or less reliable rankings drawn by different organizations, and results are always different. The ranking is different when based on the number of inhabitants, or when based on the total pollution (the top ten are just the largest countries), or when based on CO2 emissions or other gas emissions. If we take into account solid waste, or the use of fertilisers and pesticides in agriculture, or the use of chemical products in the industry, or the amount nuclear waste in the few countries with working nuclear plants, then the top ten is absolutely different.
Therefore, we reach the following conclusion: even the most accurate rankings about pollution –for instance, CARMA (Carbon Monitoring for Action) ranking with the countries releasing more CO2 into the atmosphere—ignore the obvious: pollution is a global phenomenon, affecting the whole planet, and it should not be taken locally.
Curtis Ebbesmeyer’s story with some rubber ducks is a good way to understand how global pollution is. Curtis Ebbesmeyer is an oceanographer specialised in currents and, together with some colleagues, he set up a computer programme to better understand the paths of ocean currents. The problem is that drifting buoys used to monitor currents are very expensive (up to 1,650 € for each buoy) because they are equipped with satellite tracking devices to know their location at all times, so there are very few buoys drifting on the ocean and study data are not enough. However, the story changed for good in January 1992, when a container ship sailing from Hong Kong to the US lost part of its cargo in the Pacific Ocean, resulting in 29,000 bathtub toys drifting on the ocean. This picture shows the yellow ducks, red beavers, green frogs and blue turtles displayed by the oceanographer. Some months later, in November 1992, the first ducks were washed up in Alaska, drifted by North Pacific currents. This piece of news was on the media, and suddenly the oceanographer had an idea: flotsam was a cheap tool to gather data about ocean currents. He got in touch with coastguards all around the world and he gave some interviews to the mass media, waiting to get feedback about more rubber ducks washed ashore. And he did not have to wait long. These ducks have been found in many coasts of our planet and Ebbesmeyer has been able to gather data about their long trip. Yellow ducks and red beavers are now white due to solar radiation, but frogs and turtles are still green and blue.
Thanks to the feedback from coastguards, sailors, harbour staff and citizens who stroll along the beach, the sea voyage of these bathtub toys has been tracked down. It is known that, after the wreck, the group divided into two. One part followed the American shore towards the south, skirting around the huge plastic islands we told you about some weeks ago, and in 1994 they arrived in Australia and Indonesia. The other half drifted towards the north, the toys were trapped in the ice of the Artic Ocean for five years (from 1995 to 2000) and eventually drifted to the North Atlantic. In 2000 some bathtub toys were washed up in the northern Atlantic shores of the US (from Maine to Massachusetts) and in 2003 some others were found by the Hebrides, at the west shore of Scotland. In 2007, after a 15-year sea voyage, some ducks landed for the first time in British shores and some months later in Spanish shores. Today, in 2012, these bathtub toys (better known as Friendly Floatees) have been found everywhere around the world.
But bathtub toys are not the only objects to drift around our oceans. Oceanographers have used other flotsam to better understand marine currents. In 1997, five million Lego pieces were spilled in the ocean and they have been adrift ever since. The same happened to 80,000 and 33,000 Nike sport shoes in 1990 and 2002. And these are just some examples: every year, it is estimated that between 2,000 and 10,000 containers are dropped into the ocean, releasing their cargo. Also, chemical products and oil spilling are carried by currents and spread all around the world. Even inland pollution is filtered through rivers and aquifers to get to the sea: pesticides, industrial products, fluids from dumps...
Pollution is a global phenomenon and it should be treated globally. Otherwise, we can have a clean backyard, but we will suffer the same consequences.

Ranking of countries per CO2 emissions drawn by Carbon Monitoring for Action (CARMA):
About Curtis Ebbesmeyer:
An example of buoy sophistication:
A picture of these plastic bathtub toys:
Post at Delivering Data about plastic islands in the Pacific Ocean:
Rubber ducks land British shores:

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