Tsunamis, Garbage Patches, Gyres & Green Trash Bags, What Do They Have in Common?

Posted by Allen Czermak on

Who would expect an article on an out of control of garbage conundrum, to be the result of a peruse through the latest addition of Eating Well Magazine? (October 2020). Yet one never can tell where inspiration will come from, especially when it concerns cleaning up the oceans and tackling issues like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

To relax, I subscribe to several food-oriented magazines which I receive for free or at exceptionally low prices mostly due to postage. This month's issue, of Eating Well (October, 2020) has a short but fascinating article called, “Guardians of the Coast” about a hero named Chris Pallister who together with a team of well-meaning volunteers traveled to remote Alaskan beaches to clean up the oceans from the kind of debris that contributes to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The least place that one would expect to find masses of garbage would be on a faraway beach in Alaska. Yet that is exactly what Chris found as he flew along the beaches of the Gulf of Alaska with a pilot friend. In 2006, Chris founded Gulf of Alaska Keeper, a nonprofit organization that works in good weather from May to September to remove tons of garbage from the Alaskan beaches. These beaches are so remote that they can be reached only by helicopter. 

Russia offered the United States the unique opportunity to purchase Alaska in March of 1867. The purchase price was $7.2 million dollars. This treaty assured the United States of any interference or intrusion of Russia into our borders. Besides, for the political advantages of this purchase, we benefited in many other ways including a wonderful tourist wonderama for our citizens and the world. Although I have not been fortunate to personally take part in any cruise or tour of this amazing state, I have seen and heard about its unique graces. Anyone who has had the privilege of visiting Alaska cannot help but attribute its wonders to a greater being (the one above). 

Although the garbage situation on the Alaskan coast was quite dire before 2011, when the great tsunami and earthquake hit Japan in that same year, mountains of debris from that catastrophe came along the shores of these beautiful Alaskan beaches. Could you imagine that 80% of the debris from these misfortunes ended up on these Alaskan shorelines? It highlights the urgent need for cleaning up the oceans and addressing the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. (please note that the distance from Alaska to Japan is 3,473 miles.)

A 9.0 magnitude earthquake that took place in 2011, over 200 miles from Tokyo, Japan, was the cause of a tsunami that set off thirty-foot waves. It killed over 15,000 people and lashed about five million tons of garbage debris into the ocean. In 2015 the Japanese government agreed to fund the cleanup effort with the paying of six million dollars to Canada and the United States for this massive garbage treatment and removal. The rest of the money came from state and local governments and nonprofit organizations such as, Gulf of Alaska Keeper. 

Beginning in July of 2015, and going on for a month, was a massive beach cleanup project utilizing a 300-foot barge. This barge along with helicopters to help, cleaned ragged and uninhabited shorelines. The helicopters brought the debris in specific green garbage bags (specifically identified with the organization that was responsible for the massive exercise of clearing the debris) to the top of the barge and then lowered the bags on to the barge. 

Garbage Patches and Gyres

The first person to spot the Great Pacific Garbage Patch was Charles Moore, (1997) a racing captain. After finishing a racing competition in Hawaii, Moore was sailing back to his home in California when his crew noticed millions of plastic pieces surrounding his ship.

In the North Pacific Ocean there is a collection of oceanic debris called The Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Another more technical name for this, is the Pacific trash vortex. Its transverses the waters from the West Coast of North America until Japan. This patch joins two separate garbage patches, one located near Japan, called the Western Garbage Patch and the Eastern Garbage Patch located between the states of California and Hawaii. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is encircled by the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre.

A gyre is a large arrangement of swirling ocean currents. They can be compared to large whirlpools which pull objects into their force. By pulling debris into one location they become what is called, “patches”.

This specific gyre is a combination of four distinctive currents that rotate clockwise over millions of miles. These are the names of the distinctive currents, the North Pacific current, the California current, the North Equatorial current (which crosses the Pacific Ocean near Japan), and the Kruoshio current. Tiny bits of plastic make up these garbage patches rather than large pieces of trash. These tiny bits that are so small are called microplastics since they sometimes cannot be seen by the naked eye or even satellite photos cannot catch them clearly. Instead, a garbage patch can be likened to murky soup intertwined with larger trash objects such as fishing supplies.

Although private and government funding are helpful contributors to the cleanup of the Garbage Patch, no single country is willing to bear responsibility for it. It is just so far from any specific country’s coastline. In fact, Charles Moore, who discovered the Great Garbage Patch, went so far as to claim that any country that would try to take responsibility for the cleanup would surely go bankrupt, that’s what a massive cleanup it would entail.

Even with enough funding, the cleanup of marine debris is quite complicated since some microplastics are just the same size as small sea animals. If a net would be lowered to scoop up the trash, it could mistakenly catch these species too. In 2014, Moore sent out drones to evaluate the extent of the trash in the ocean. In fact the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Debris Program claimed that it would take sixty-seven ships a year to clean up only one percent of the debris in the North Pacific Ocean.

The sprawling Garbage Patch has affected sea life immensely. Over three million pounds of trash has been removed since the late 1990’s. Gulf of Alaska Keeper, has had such a positive impact in the area that miles of salmon breeding streams have been unblocked thanks to their work. Harbor seals and orcas (killer whales) are being reintegrated into the eco system.

The World is getting smaller and smaller. We are all connected through the good times and bad. COVID-19 has taught us this. From Melbourne, Australia to Tel Aviv, Israel, countries are thousands of miles apart are in lockdown together. Air travel has brought us so close that a person in America could be infected with a virus from a person from China only because they traveled on the same jet.

So too, a devastating tsunami in Japan which took place almost a decade ago is still having horrible repercussions in a remote and uninhabited area in Alaska. When we think of the state of Alaska, which we were so fortunate to have purchased from the Soviet Union, we think of pristine shores, snow covered mountains and clear blue water. With a sparse population who would expect otherwise.

As we learn more about the method in which plastics decompose naturally, we realize that ridding the oceans of it is more complicated that we could fathom. Debris can become embedded in huge logs and other natural resources and chain saws must be used to extricate the trash. Specially designed garbage bags must be used to place the debris into since they will be airlifted by helicopters and then on to barges. On the one hand, we are trying to eradicate plastics and on the other hand we need them desperately to clean up the Garbage Patches. Dichotomies such as these make it necessary to have brilliant and devoted minds to figure out solutions to these great issues. Rest assured that there are always devoted rescuers who are ready to give their time and money and even in rare situations their lives to keep the earth a protected place.

People such as Chris Pallister (who saw, “trash lining the beach 100 yards deep”) and ‘Charles Moore (who noticed something others hadn’t and reported it.) give us hope that our planet can be saved from the destruction of devastations like the gyre powered Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

The great impact of the Japanese Tsunami of 2011 is still being felt almost a decade later thousands of miles from where it took place. It was destined from above and no one is to blame for the tsunami and devastating earthquake, but we should take responsibility as a world community to prevent such massive accumulation of garbage especially in a place as beautiful as Alaska.

Learning about the different types of garbage debris and the receptacles needed to gather them, teaches us that we cannot campaign to simply stamp out plastic. We need plastic to be the materials to manufacture specific types of bags to haul the heavy trash whether it be from our homes or from helicopters. Let us work together in peace to find the solutions that will keep our planet safe for its inhabitants and its wildlife.

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