Albatrosses are majestic seabirds that soar over vast distances of ocean skimming the surface of the water for food. Some species have wingspans over 11 feet wide and some can live for decades. Some birds can go more than a year without ever touching land.
Most species of albatross are listed by the IUCN at some level of concern, from vulnerable to critically endangered. There are a number of factors that threaten the population including declining food supplies and introduced species that attacking eggs, chicks, and nesting birds. But there is one danger that is a surprise, since these birds spend most of their lives at sea: plastic.
Jenna Jambeck, an environmental engineer at the University of Georgia conducts research in marine debris – the trash that ends up in the ocean. She and her colleagues estimated that 8 million metric tons of plastic waste entered the ocean in 2010. That’s 24 times the weight of the Empire State Building!
Some of this plastic washes up on beaches, but some of it gets caught in large rotating ocean currents, called gyres, and remain suspend in the water for months, years, even decades. One of these gyres is in the northern Pacific and is sometimes called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
Plastic in the ocean breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces over time, but doesn’t biodegrade into minerals and organic material like the compost you can feed the plants in your garden. That doesn’t stop animals from eating it. Once small fish and birds consume the pieces, (some animals die), the plastic transports persistent, often toxic chemicals into the food chain – which includes people. Bits of red plastic are particularly attractive to marine life and seabirds.
One innovative solution to this problem was proposed by a Dutch high school student named Boyan Slat. He designed a system that would use the ocean currents to concentrate and remove plastic from the water. Slat presented this idea in a TEDx talk that generated enough interest and crowd sourced funding to start The Ocean Cleanup, an organization dedicated to make it happen. A prototype of the design is currently being tested in the North Sea.
This is just one example of how a significant problem can be tackled with true engineering spirit. There are still lots more problems to solve. And there are other kinds of pollution that affect the wildlife that depend on our oceans.
What will future engineers design to keep the oceans clean and safe for both humans and animals?
Photo by JJ Harrison of a Wandering Albatross (Diomedea exulans) in flight, East of the Tasman Peninsula, Tasmania, Australia. Available through Creative Commons liscence on Wikipedia.