Sunday, June 07, 2009

Search for downed plane highlights ocean trash problem

CNN.com: "(CNN) -- The massive amount of garbage in the ocean likely complicates the search for the remains of an Air France flight that went missing Monday near Brazil, oceanographers who spoke with CNN said.
Trash clutters the world's oceans, as shown here in a file photo near Hong Kong.
Earlier this week, investigators said they had located pieces of the plane in the southern Atlantic Ocean, which might have given them clues to the origin of Air France Flight 447's crash.
But on Thursday, Brazilian officials said what they had found was nothing more than run-of-the-mill ocean trash.
This highlights a little-seen environmental problem: Scientists say the world's oceans are increasingly filled with junk -- everything from large items like refrigerators and abandoned yachts to small stuff like plastic bottles.
Much of the ocean trash is plastic, which means it won't go away for hundreds of years, if ever. And the problem has gotten so bad that soupy "garbage patches" have developed in several locations, called gyres, where ocean currents swirl.
One of them is estimated to be the size of Texas.
There are about five or six major trash-collecting gyres in the world's oceans, with the most famous located in the Pacific Ocean about midway between North America and Asia, experts said. Trash collects at these locations, where ocean currents swirl, and forms a gunk of small plastic pieces. See a map of Pacific Ocean debris »
There is not a major "trash island" near the site of the Air France plane crash in the south Atlantic, oceanographers said, but splitting currents do create a smaller area for trash to congregate.
"That area [of the crash site] has got lots of debris that's just out there, coming from Europe heading over the Americas," said Curtis Ebbesmeyer, a oceanographer and author of a book called "Flatsometrics and the Floating World." "And it's notoriously difficult to spot debris from the air."
The south Atlantic near Brazil is driven by two currents, one that pushes debris to the north, along the coast of Florida, and one that would push it to the south, perhaps all the way to the tip of South America, he said. So the plane's wreckage could span that massive area, he said.
Most debris from the crash of Air France Flight 447 would head toward Brazil and arrive within a couple of months; but wherever the remnants land, the plane debris would be difficult to distinguish from the mountains of trash that wash up on beaches every day, Ebbesmeyer said.
"The trouble is that there is so much debris on eastern Florida that's from South America. Anywhere, it's very unlikely that anyone will recover [the plane debris]," he said. "It's very likely that debris that would provide closure for loved ones would go in the Dumpster because [beachgoers] don't know what it is.""

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