East of the San Francisco Peaks are the even taller Rockies; to their west are the Sierra Madres, whose volcanic summits are higher still. Impossible as it is for us to fathom, all these colossal mountains will one day erode to the seaevery boulder, outcrop, saddle, spire, and canyon wall. Every massive uplift will pulverize, their minerals dissolving to keep the oceans salted, the plume of nutrients in their soils nourishing a new marine biological age even as the previous one disappears beneath their sediments.
Long before that, however, these deposits will have been preceded by a substance far lighter and more easily carried seaward than rocks or even grains of silt.
Capt. Charles Moore of Long Beach, California, learned that the day in 1997 when, sailing out of Honolulu, he steered his aluminum-hulled catamaran into a part of the western Pacific he'd always avoided. Sometimes known as the horse latitudes, it is a Texas-sized span of ocean between Hawaii and California rarely plied by sailors because of a perennial, slowly rotating high-pressure vortex of hot equatorial air that inhales wind and never gives it back. Beneath it, the water describes lazy, clockwise whorls toward a depression at the center.
Its correct name is the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, though Moore soon learned that oceanographers had another label for it: the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Captain Moore had wandered into a sump where nearly everything that blows into the water from half the Pacific Rim eventually ends up, spiraling slowly toward a widening horror of industrial excretion. For a week, Moore and his crew found themselves crossing a sea the size of a small continent, covered with floating refuse. It was not unlike an Arctic vessel pushing through chunks of brash ice, except what was bobbing around them was a fright of cups, bottle caps, tangles of fish netting and monofilament line, bits of polystyrene packaging, six-pack rings, spent balloons, filmy scraps of sandwich wrap, and limp plastic bags that defied counting.
Just two years earlier, Moore had retired from his wood-furniture-finishing business. A lifelong surfer, his hair still ungrayed, he'd built himself a boat and settled into what he planned to be a stimulating young retirement. Raised by a sailing father and certified as a captain by the U.S. Coast Guard, he started a volunteer marine environmental monitoring group. After his hellish mid-Pacific encounter with the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, his group ballooned into what is now the Algita Marine Research Foundation, devoted to confronting the flotsam of a half century, since 90 percent of the junk he was seeing was plastic.
What stunned Charles Moore most was learning where it came from. In 1975, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences had estimated that all oceangoing vessels together dumped 8 million pounds of plastic annually. More recent research showed the world's merchant fleet alone shamelessly tossing around 639,000 plastic containers every day. But littering by all the commercial ships and navies, Moore discovered, amounted to mere polymer crumbs in the ocean compared to what was pouring from the shore.
The real reason that the world's landfills weren't overflowing with plastic, he found, was because most of it ends up in an ocean-fill. After a few years of sampling the North Pacific gyre, Moore concluded that 80 percent of mid-ocean flotsam had originally been discarded on land. It had blown off garbage trucks or out of landfills, spilled from railroad shipping containers and washed down storm drains, sailed down rivers or wafted on the wind, and found its way to this widening gyre.
"This," Captain Moore tells his passengers, "is where all the things end up that flow down rivers to the sea." It is the same phrase geologists have uttered to students since the beginning of science, describing the inexorable processes of erosion that reduce mountains to dissolved salts and specks small enough to wash to the ocean, where they settle into layers of the distant future's rocks. However, what Moore refers to is a type of runoff and sedimentation that the Earth had hitherto never known in 5 billion years of geologic timebut likely will henceforth.
Copyright © 2007 by Alan Weisman. All rights reserved.
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