The currents of the Indian Ocean Gyre
Over recent weeks the news has been dominated by the story of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370. The plane, with 227 passengers and 12 crew on board, lost contact with ground radar on the 8th March – and no trace of it has been found since.
A few days later, I was asked to write an article on how a plane could simply "disappear". As the article outlined, it's not that difficult to lose a plane at sea. However, in the few weeks since my attention has been drawn to a far more significant aspect of the story; one which has not been headline news.
From the outset of the rescue operation there were reports of oil slicks and drifting debris spotted in the South China Sea. When the focus shifted to first the northern, then southern, and then back to the middle of the Indian Ocean, yet more debris was spotted. Satellite photos from different nations were strewn across news casts show objects floating in the water. Spotter planes also reported seeing collections of floating debris.
Since the plane's loss we've had almost daily reports of possible debris. Despite hopes being raised each time a large patch of debris was found, on investigation none of this debris found had any link to the missing plane.
Almost a month later, the most significant untold story of the search for Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 is that our oceans are full of trash! That trash comes in all shapes and sizes, and, for the first time, the amount of trash out there is hampering all efforts to try and find the possible location of the plane.
The large chunks spotted by satellite and search plane – a few metres across – represent the smallest fraction of the sum of human waste dumped in the oceans. What the rescue services have seen is just the waste which floats – a lot also sinks to the bottom. In fact, the bulk of the human waste in the oceans is made up of particles only a millimetre or two across.
The problem is that the oceans are very big – and so it's easy to hide an awful lot of human wastes out there. However, some recent studies have shown that the amount of waste in the water column now outweighs the plankton by up to six-to-one. In places the debris is so dense that we see reef fish, usually only found on the coastal fringe, living within the debris in the middle of the open oceans.
Drifting waste is concentrated by winds, waves and ocean currents. You may have heard of the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch" in the middle of the Pacific. There are in fact five ocean gyres which now concentrate human waste. One of them, the Indian Ocean Gyre, covers the area to the west of Australia where the search effort for flight MH370 is now centred. That's what's making the search for the plane so difficult – there's an awful lot of garbage drifting around just there.
Learned articles have been written about the problems of waste in the oceans for some time. The eco-concerns of the 1970s led to the adoption of the London Dumping Convention – and yet, despite many campaigns, this seems to have had little impact on the inexorable rise of the volumes of waste now entering the world's ocean systems.
"The longevity of plastic is estimated to be hundreds to thousands of years, but is likely to be far longer in deep sea and non-surface polar environments. Plastic debris poses considerable threat by choking and starving wildlife, distributing non-native and potentially harmful organisms, absorbing toxic chemicals and degrading to micro-plastics that may subsequently be ingested."
We know that plastics are now disruptively re-engineering marine ecology, harming ocean life, and that this ultimately threatens the human food supply. The difficulty is that solving this problem is centred on that multi-faceted phenomena which is at the root of so many ecological issues – the throwaway consumer society.
The loss of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 is a human tragedy. But the factors which are today exacerbating the search for the plane mark an even greater human tragedy in the future. One which, as recent coverage of the rescue operations shows, we are myopically incapable of recognising as a greater danger to us all.