On Tuesday night the Unlimited Adventure series, presented by the Vail Symposium, returns to the Donovan Pavilion with a focus on a global issue that might seem a bit removed from a land-locked state like Colorado.
“Saving our Synthetic Seas” will be presented by Marcus Eriksen, Ph.D., the executive director and co-founder of the 5 Gyres Institute, an organization he created to study the global distribution and ecological impacts of plastic marine pollution.
Even though Colorado is thousands of miles from the nearest ocean, the issue of plastic marine pollution is one that impacts our Valley. The program promises to not only elucidate the issues, but also provide ideas and opportunities to make a positive change.
“Both the Eagle River Watershed Council and the Eagle Valley Alliance for Sustainability have chosen to partner with us on this event,” said Tracey Flower, development, marketing and administration officer for the Vail Symposium. “I think their involvement demonstrates the importance of this issue and I’m really excited to hear about what we can do locally — in the Vail Valley — to make a difference.”
Eriksen first became aware of the problem of plastic pollution in our oceans by seeing it firsthand.
“There were really two experiences: the first was on the Midway atoll. I was studying bird ecology and we saw albatross skeletons with these plastic particles pouring out of their guts,” he said. “Three years later, after I finished my Ph. D., I had no home, no job and no girlfriend, so I decided to build a raft and float it from Lake Itasca, down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico. All along the river I found tons and tons of plastic trash and saw plastic floating. I thought, ‘Here is our nation’s greatest watershed, taking trash into the world.’”
The center of the gyre
This personal experience with plastic pollution led to learning about the Great Pacific Plastic Patch. Then Eriksen started his own research on not only the Pacific, but on other gyres around the world. He found eight plastic patches in the five subtropical gyres.
So, what’s a gyre? A gyre is basically a massive current system that flows in a circle and occupies the entire ocean basin, Eriksen explained.
“In the center, there are few currents and very little wind; the center is where trash accumulates. The outside currents are moving in a circle, bringing trash in,” Eriksen said. “Now, I don’t want you to imagine a floating sea of garbage, but bits of plastic. It’s an endless sea of 3.3 trillion particles, which makes up 1.76 tons of trash. You can’t see them all, but it’s a massive sea of floating particles.”
How do these particles get here? Plastic degrades. The sun, the waves and the sea are reducing plastic trash into smaller and smaller pieces.
“The problem,” Eriksen said, “Is that we don’t know is what happens to the smaller particles. Are they sinking? Attaching to other elements in the ocean? Degrading? Washing ashore? We don’t know what happens to all of this plastic waste.”
Past and future extinction events
Eriksen is stopping in Vail on his way back to Los Angeles from Lusk, Wyo. where he’s been working on a dig for dinosaurs.
“We just dug up a triceratops shoulder blade three days ago. I’ll have a van full of bones,” he said. “I might incorporate fossils into my talk in Vail. The dinosaurs are part of an extinction event in the past; in the present, we’re facing an extinction event caused by us.”
Vail is not just a convenient waypoint — Eriksen has ties to the Valley. He and Jesse Horton, of Horton Fine Art in Beaver Creek, sailed the west Pacific together, from Tokyo to Hawaii.
“I’m looking forward to talking to the folks in Vail,” Eriksen said. “The Colorado River takes waste directly to Pacific — you’re a good audience.”
Eriksen will also give details about ways to get involved.
“We’re running sailing expeditions and we want people to join us,” he said. “If you want to see the impact of plastics in the ocean, see for yourself with 5 Gyres. We’ll have information on the North Atlantic expeditions for 2014 on our website soon.”
The presentation promises to be an interesting one, with Eriksen speaking about not only his research, but also his adventures, including his voyage on the JUNK raft, made from 15,000 plastic bottles and a Cessna airplane, on which he drifted 2,600 miles in 88 days from California to Hawaii to bring attention to the plague of plastic in the world’s oceans.