By: Carolynn Box and Lia Colabello, The 5 Gyres Institute
5 Gyres was founded on the belief that citizen science can change the world. In 2009, we began raising awareness about marine plastic pollution when Dr. Marcus Ericksen and Anna Cummins collected 15,000 plastic water bottles to create the JUNK RAFT, which Marcus sailed for 2,600 miles for 88 day from California to Hawaii. Since then, the organization has embarked on 17 research expeditions, covering 50,000 miles and engaging scientists around the globe.
In 2014, 5 Gyres convened eight international scientists to publish the first global estimate of plastic pollution in our oceans: 5.25 trillion particles weighing in at 269,000 tons of “plastic smog” worldwide.
For our 17th research expedition this past August, The 5 Gyres Institute traveled 1687 miles through the Canadian Arctic to collect microplastics to better understand the global distribution of the smog of plastic that plagues our seas. Accompanying 5 Gyres cofounder and Research Director Dr. Marcus Eriksen and Environmental Program Director Carolynn Box were 22 citizen scientists from five countries – filmmakers, educators, scientists, CEOs, activists, and artists.
For the first time, 5 Gyres was able to share, in real time, the adventure, including the route, photos and updates, with a global audience via our Expedition Portal set up for us by the geniuses at ZPPR. A digital journal of the expedition can be seen here.
The Expedition goals were to add data to 5 Gyres’ annual report on the global distribution of plastic pollution in our ocean, carryout research in an area with little to no plastic pollution research and also train a new group of 5 Gyres Ambassadors. While we have sampled the North Atlantic Gyre multiple times, this was our first expedition above the Arctic Circle—as well a the first time we were able to measure down to the nanoplastic level. Our team collected 18 surface samples via zodiac using two methods: a Manta Trawl and a 20 micron pump designed by oceanographers at Louisiana State University. The results will be released in Spring 2017.
We also observed that even the most remote communities in the world are reliant on products that come in plastic packaging. For them, the only means of disposal of plastic waste is in landfills and by incineration. Our team learned that the village of Pond Inlet, in Canada, gets one delivery of goods each year via container ship. Community leaders asked the importer to take back the packaging on the return voyage but was met with resistance, leaving the town with few options to manage plastic waste, much like many regions around the world.
It wasn’t just the plastic pollution seen above the Arctic Circle that made an impact on our team. Several of our citizen scientists had been to the Arctic a decade before and were stunned by the lack of sea ice this time around. The crew of our expedition ship commented on this too. It was very sobering to witness the effects of climate change in the Arctic first-hand.
It’s been six weeks since we returned from the expedition and we are busy wrapping things up. The samples are now being examined in the lab and we are writing reports about our findings. The 22 citizen scientists who accompanied us are now part of 5 Gyres’s team of Ambassadors, tasked with sharing the knowledge that they have gained about ocean plastic pollution with their communities through presentations and other engagement opportunities. We are also planning our 2017 research expedition and will keep Mission Blue posted on our plans. If you are interested in joining us next year, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.