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Litter found in deepsea survey of one of Earth’s final unexplored realms

Human-generated rubbish unfortunately has a long history in the deep ocean. In the age of steamships, for example, vessels dumped the remains of burned coal, known as clinker, from their engine rooms. Clinker changed the nature of the seafloor in well-travelled areas, transforming the seabed from soft sediment in which some forms of marine life can burrow, into cobbled areas suiting other life-forms that can anchor to hard surfaces. The scale of that transformation is such that clinker is now recognised as a seafloor type when we are mapping the deep ocean.

At the time that our great-great-grandparents were dumping clinker, however, they only had hazy notions about the depth of the oceans, let alone what was going on down there. Just starting to map the depth of the ocean, let alone visit it, required two technological advances. One was the ability to fix a ship’s position accurately far from land, solved by inventions such as John Harrison’s longitude-determining chronometer. The other was steam-powered winches, which helped early survey ships to pay out and haul in the miles of cable required to plumb the ocean depths.

Today we can gauge the large-scale landscape of the ocean floor from satellites, map it in far greater detail using sonar, and visit its most extreme depths with deep-diving vehicles. Plastic, meanwhile, has replaced clinker as a common contaminant of the deep ocean. During our present expedition, we plan to collect sediment cores around the world’s deepest known undersea vents to see if there are any microplastics here: tiny ground-down remnants of plastic that may now be quite ubiquitous in the oceans.

Although we might not think about it, our daily lives have an impact on the deep ocean, not just through items of litter that end up there, but increasingly through the resources that we use. We are fishing in deeper waters, extracting oil and gas from deeper waters, and now eyeing deposits of metals and rare earth elements on the ocean floor, needed for the ever-developing technology of our modern lives.

(via guardian.co.uk)

#trash #garbage #pollution #ocean #underwater #deep sea #environment

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