SEAPLEX Mission To Visit 'Garbage Patch'

Grad students from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography will visit the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch," where plastics and other refuse collect. Chief scientist Miriam Goldstein outlines what the researchers hope to learn about the material dumped in the ocean.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

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You say you are a hardworking grad student and it's summer vacation time. You have a few weeks to kill before the new semester. If you want to take a trip or cruise to Alaska, Majorca, I got a better place. How about Great Pacific Garbage Patch? Yeah, that more your style? Well, maybe you can catch the next one because the first group is ready to leave this Sunday. Student scientists from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography will be headed out there. And their mission: to sample the water in the patch and get a handle of what happens to all that plastic that we dump into the ocean.

Joining me now to talk more about the trip, dubbed SEAPLEX, is my guest Miriam Goldstein. She is the chief scientist for that mission that stands for Scripps Environmental Accumulation of Plastic Expedition. She is a Ph.D. student at Scripps and - that's at the University of California, San Diego. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Ms. MIRIAM GOLDSTEIN (Chief Scientist, University of California): Hi. I'm delighted to be here.

FLATOW: How did you get on a gig like that?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GOLDSTEIN: Well, we're very fortunate at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography to have a program called the U.C. Ship Funds which allows graduate students such as myself and my colleagues and also post-docs and professors early in their career to apply to do our own cruises, which is really very, very unusual in the scientific world. So, we - last year, a group of students interested in this issue got together and wrote a grant to the U.C. Ship Funds and much to our surprise, it was funded and thus SEAPLEX was started. And just recently, few more - some more days of ship times were added by a non-profit that we're collaborating with called Project Kaisei.

FLATOW: So, you're all getting on a ship on Sunday. And where are you headed to?

Ms. GOLDSTEIN: Well, we are headed to really the middle of nowhere. We are going to be about a thousand miles offshore northeast of Hawaii. So if you sort of envision a spot pretty much evenly spaced between the northern California and Hawaii, that's where we'll be.

FLATOW: And you're going to be sampling the water out there. And what is this Great Garbage Patch like?

Ms. GOLDSTEIN: Well, I just want to attribute it to - upon what we think, although we haven't seen it yet, we're pretty sure there is no island. Like, there is no…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GOLDSTEIN: …we're going to able to walk across the water on the garbage, although that does sound like fun, but it is…

FLATOW: Not like a giant land…

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: It's not like a giant landfill out there is what…

Ms. GOLDSTEIN: Exactly. We are in fact - we think, although again we'll report back once we get there, is that we're not going to actually be able to see much visually at all. Most of the trash is thought to be less than a couple of millimeters in size. The group that's done the most work out there, the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, has found that pretty much there's about one of these little pieces per meter cubed of water. So that's like a tiny piece the size of your little fingernail inside, say, something the size of a mini-fridge.

So, you can't really see that with your eyes, although it's a lot compared to having no plastic in the ocean, like there should be. So how we look at that is we're going to drag assorted kinds of nets through the water and gather up that plastic that way.

FLATOW: And how did all that stuff get there?

Ms. GOLDSTEIN: Well, we think that - and the current research thinks that most of it is actually coming off land. The way the currents go, everything that comes off the West Coast of the U.S. and everything that comes off the east coast of Asia would - that make that float would be predicted to accumulate in this area.

FLATOW: So there are currents that are just drawing it from east and west.

Ms. GOLDSTEIN: That's right. The gyre - the North Pacific Gyre itself is an oceanographic feature. It's like a big slow whirlpool that currents clockwise. So, stuff from California gets drawn south in the California current and sort of twirls around. And stuff that comes off Asia gets - goes east in the Kuroshio Current and then everything just gets drawn towards the middle as this big whirlpool turns.

FLATOW: And so you're going to take - you take a net and scoop it up or you're going to sample it in water, like in jars and things like that?

Ms. GOLDSTEIN: Oh, we're going to do it all.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GOLDSTEIN: We'll be both taking water samples and that will be looking at the really small stuff, the phytoplankton, the tiny plants. And we're also going to be doing different kinds of nets for the little animals, the zooplankton, as well as the plastic. And we'll be doing somewhat larger nets to look at the small fish. We're also - if we see big accumulation, we're just going to scoop it right up in hand nets and looks at the animals that are growing on it, as well as what kinds of debris are out there.

FLATOW: Are going to be sending Tweets from out there in the ship?

Ms. GOLDSTEIN: We will be. We're going to be both - trying to do at least one blog entry a day and sending Tweets and posting a daily picture. And I believe our collaborators, Project Kaisei, are also going to plan on posting a whole bunch of pictures. So, be able to follow along with what we're seeing out there.

FLATOW: And how long will you be out there for?

Ms. GOLDSTEIN: We're going to be out there for 20 days. So, we'll get in - we're leaving on Sunday. We'll get into Newport, Oregon on August 21st.

FLATOW: I hope you're taking a lot of suntan oil.

Ms. GOLDSTEIN: We sure are. I actually have started ordering it in bulk from Cosco. It's one of the habits of the job.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: All right. Well, good luck to you.

Ms. GOLDSTEIN: Well, thank you so much.

FLATOW: And how will you know that this has been successful a mission? Rather than just something to do when you write about what I did on my summer vacation?

Ms. GOLDSTEIN: I don't - doctoral students usually don't get summer vacations unfortunately. But we - what we're hoping - we're - I'm sorry, I had to rephrase that. We're going to - it's going to take us a while to figure out what we found because what we're actually going to come off the ship with is about a thousand jars filled with stuff that came up in our net. But it's all really small. So, it's going to take us a while of looking at it under the microscope and doing different kinds of analyses to really figure out what we had. But such is the cost of science. You get to spend, you know, three weeks on the ocean and then, a year and a half in the lab.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Well…

Ms. GOLDSTEIN: But we're thrilled that we get to do it.

FLATOW: Well, good luck to you. I want to wish you good luck as I say and happy hunting.

Ms. GOLDSTEIN: Thank you so much.

FLATOW: We'll check back when you back in.

Ms. GOLDSTEIN: We will. Thank you.

FLATOW: Miriam Goldstein is chief scientist for the SEAPLEX Mission and that's the Scripps Environmental Accumulation of Plastic Expedition headed out to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

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