Ocean Science from Beach Rubbish

There’s a lot to learn from beach rubbish. We learn, first-hand, the impacts of the millions of tonnes of rubbish that pollute our oceans year year, having terrible impacts on our marine and coastal ecosystems. Add to this those terrible little microplastics that are delivering toxins into the food chain and it’s clear that we have a huge problem on our hands—none the least that humans are a pretty grubby species.

But, being an optimist, I reckon that there’s also some really interesting science we can learn from studying the rubbish that washes up on our beaches.

Some recent finds on my local beach in Okinawa, Japan made me start thinking about ocean currents and the amazing connectivity of the natural world.

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A chinese PET bottle washed up on my local beach in Okinawa

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The two currents mainly responsible for the delivery of rubbish on Okinawan beaches (image courtesy of MiyakoJima Kids Net)

Unfortunately, due to its westerly aspect and proximity to mainland Asia, my local beach receives quite a lot of rubbish from China, Taiwan and even as far away as Vietnam.  There are two regional ocean currents mainly responsible* for the delivery of this rubbish on my local beach: 1) the Taiwan Warm Current (TWC); and 2) the Kuroshio Current.

Much of the rubbish from China, Vietnam and the west coast of Taiwan is thought to travel northwards to Okinawa on the TWC. Whilst rubbish washed into the ocean from the eastern side or Taiwan and the Philippines makes its way north on the Kuroshio Current that flows north-eastwards between the Ryukyu Islands and mainland China.

Simple enough, but then the other day I found a golf ball on the beach.  Finding a golf ball probably isn’t that strange in golf loving Asia, but the fact that it was stamped with Pebble Creek Golf Links—a famous golf course in California USA—was very surprising indeed.  I knew that golf balls float in saltwater so I began thinking about whether or not the ball could have floated over 10,000 kms across the ocean to end up on this beach…

Weary traveller. The golf ball I found in Okinawa from Pebble Beach Golf Course in California, USA

Weary traveller. The golf ball I found in Okinawa from Pebble Beach Golf Course in California, USA

The Kuroshio current forms part of the ‘North Pacific Gyre’—the major circulation in the northern Pacific Ocean—and it’s more than likely that the golf ball I found travelled down the east coast of USA, then floated west past Hawaii, took a right turn near the Philippines and ended up in Okinawa. It would have also avoided getting stuck in one of the Pacific’s garbage patches—no mean feat considering their size.

The North Pacific Gyre and garbage patches (image courtesy of NOAA)

The fact that a golf ball from someone’s stray tee shot can end up over 10,000 kms away on my local beach is the perfect example of the interconnectivity of the world.  Our actions not only impact our local environment but also the environment in places we least expect—the butterfly effect.  But the worst thing this that what’s happening on my local beach is literally a drop in the ocean when you realise how how rubbish accumulates in our seas and the effects it has on our ecosystems—the same ecosystems that provide us with services such as food, medicine, carbon fixation and many more.  It’s probably a bit about education, a bit about reducing consumption, a bit about regulation, but a lot about simply thinking about someone and something other than yourself that will help improve this global problem.

Here are just a few links to just some of the many positive things we can do to help reverse this global problem:

 

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Rubbish from the fishing industry is a huge problem here in Okinawa where the surrounding seas are prime fishing grounds for crews from Japan, China and Taiwan

The rankings in this chart reflect the largest total amounts of plastic waste flowing into the oceans annually, not the highest per capita amounts. For example, Bangladesh ranks 10th overall, with 867,879 tons, but 187th per capita, at 346 pounds per person. Denmark ranks 143rd overall with 1,974 tons, but 19th per capita, at 1,883 pounds per person. (Image courtesy of National Geographic)

 

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Almost every few weeks I collect bags full of PET bottles from my local beach.

*Whilst there are a number of other ocean currents involved in this process—including the south moving cold coastal currents of China and the currents of the Japan Sea—for the purpose of illustration I have chosen to focus on the two main currents.

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