Thursday, May 24, 2012

Introducing Curtis Cove

I've mentioned in passing that my work lately has expanded beyond one beach. Time to dish on what I've been up to these past several months.

Welcome to Curtis Cove, Biddeford, Maine:
I discovered this place in December 2010. It's at the end of a long, winding, wonderful seashore drive that wends past salt marshes and beautiful homes. The road grows more & more narrow and rustic -- and isolated. Then, rounding a sharp corner bordered by a rip-rap seawall and thick brambles, it ends abruptly at a private dirt access road (the arrow below).
When I got to the end, I hopped out for a look. The cove was private, so I didn't stay long. It should have been a little slice of heaven. An untouched secret shore with rocky headlands at its front, a salt marsh & tidal estuary at its rear. But what I saw shocked me. The entire beach was littered in garbage. Rope, old cups, a balloon, innumerable lobster trap parts, unidentifiable but long-suffering plastic scraps, a tire.

This private, untouristed, unknown cove was a dump -- a huge collection spot for ocean-borne garbage. I took some pictures, and left heavy-hearted.

Fast-forward to Fall 2011, when I came across amazing news. The family that owned the whole 97-acre peninsula was selling. To a group of conservation organizations. One of the last undeveloped coastal gems in southern Maine was going to be preserved forever! And I just might have a chance to get back onto Curtis Cove to have a real look.

In the end, the peninsula, "Timber Point," came into the hands of the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge. I met with the refuge management, discussed my flotsam work with them, and suggested that Curtis Cove would be an ideal spot to see -- really see -- what's out there in the Gulf of Maine. And happily they agreed! Within weeks my permits had been signed & granted.
I was in!

On January 1, 2012, I visited Curtis Cove for the first time as a licensed Flotsam Diarist. I scouted the land and decided on a plan of attack for studying the beach. With the heavy influx of flotsam, I decided to focus on a 150-foot wedge of shoreline along the northern part of the cove. And I got to work. Thanks to a ridiculously mild winter, I was able to spend January and half of February cleaning off the age-old debris, finally getting to a clean "baseline" on February 22.

Since then, I've been returning weekly to scour the same 150-foot stretch of beach and see what's come in.

The results have been gobsmacking.
This is 1325 feet of fishing rope. More than 1/4 mile of rope, 757 individual pieces, washed in between February 29 and May 17. And it shows no signs of stopping, or slowing.

But far beyond just rope is the assortment of other debris, almost all plastic. A few examples. February 29:
Or March 7:
Or March 13:
Or the huge shocker, March 30:
On March 30 alone I collected 526 pieces of garbage -- 398 of them were little scraps of vinyl coating torn from derelict & rusting lobster traps. At least half a million derelict traps now rest on the floor of the Gulf of Maine. Each trap will release over a thousand of these vinyl scraps by the time it's done disintegrating. They don't go away.

Curtis Cove has always been a natural collection point of ocean debris. Seaweed still washes in two feet thick if the weather's right. As it decays (the nose won't miss this), it pours an amazing amount of nutrients back into the soil and the water. This rich environment supports wonderful tide pools, choc-a-bloc with life and diversity.
A nudibranch -- a shell-less snail
A gunnel, or "rock eel"
When the gulls bobbing on the incoming tide cry... or the geese soar by overhead straight as an arrow... or the surf roars as it breaks on the distant ledge at the head of the cove... or you discover a new creature you've never seen before... that's when you realize that this is a special place.

And when you see a gorgeous tide pool littered with modern junk:
...that's when you realize that the special places in the world are under assault. From our plastic lifestyle. And that this has to change. Curtis Cove is now a wildlife refuge. A place protected from the modern world. But there is no protection from what the modern world has dumped into the sea.

It's not really possible to overstate how badly the Gulf of Maine is being abused by persistent plastic garbage. But now that I have Curtis Cove to visit week after week, it is possible to shine a bright & searing light on it.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Canning the Round Numbers

Scientific American online just published the following article of mine, reposted here in full:

Ever notice that we’ve got a thing for round numbers? We like our data neat and tidy.

The world of ocean pollution and litter prevention is filled with nice round numbers. Like those lists of how long various consumer goods take to go away once they escape into the environment...
But recent finds on the beach have me asking: Are those numbers actually any good? Take aluminum.

An oft-repeated line says that aluminum takes 200 years to break down. Now I’ve found old pieces of aluminum -- like this top to a steel can from the early pulltab era, most likely used on a Coke product c. 1971-72:
Found by author March 12, 2012, Bay View beach, Saco, Maine 
This bit of aluminum, 40 years old, is on its way to disappearing. In something maybe not too far from the 200-year mark.

But you see, I’ve found other pulltab-era can tops that tell a very different story. This one, also about 40 years old, is still in remarkable shape:
Found by author April 10, 2012, Curtis Cove, Biddeford, Maine 
On the flip side, this one, probably more like 30 years old, is more than half gone:
Found by author February 29, 2012, Bay View
And this very modern can is already turning into Swiss cheese after perhaps a year of exposure:

Found by author April 25, 2012, Bay View
It turns out, the breakdown of aluminum isn’t a set event, it’s a system. One in which all the pieces have to fall into place for it to corrode back to dust.

When iron rusts, the new compound -- iron oxide, Fe2O3 -- takes up more physical space than the old. That’s why rust blisters & bubbles out. Those blisters expose more fresh iron underneath, which then rusts, and on and on until it’s all gone.

But when aluminum oxidizes, the aluminum oxide doesn’t take up any more space. It maintains its tight bond with the underlying aluminum. It’s actually a brilliantly weathertight seal. An undisturbed piece of aluminum can exist for... well, indefinitely long.

Now if you take that aluminum outside its comfort zone pH of 4.5 to 8.5, its protective oxide film will fail and true corrosion can set in. But such pH levels are rare in the ocean.

So what happened to the aluminum I’ve found? Corrosion got a boost from something more mechanical: abrasion. Get currents to drag aluminum back and forth through sand and gravel. Over & over & over. Each scrape wears a little surface aluminum oxide away, revealing fresh aluminum, which then transforms into more aluminum oxide. Tide rolls in, scrape scrape. Tide rolls out, scrape scrape. Maybe something acidic settles on it briefly, dissolve dissolve. Do it just right, and you can erode away an entire can in a matter of months -- not centuries.

Do it wrong, and you bury that aluminum under inert protective sediment.

Which brings me back to those photos. For the first year and a half at my beach, zero pulltab-era (30+ years old) can tops washed in. In the past six months six have washed in -- four within one month!

Why now?

Well, in recent months a sand bar has appeared at my beach at low tide.
March 12, 2012, Bay View
Never seen it before, but it’s there now. All that sand has come from further offshore. Where it perhaps once covered, buried, and protected those old bits of aluminum -- some for years, some for decades.

The study of how beached flotsam changes over time -- and what that can say about larger environmental change like seafloor shifts -- is interesting in its own right. But for the purpose at hand, it’s just a reminder: The world is not a static place. It’s ever-evolving. Things get moved, stuck, buried, freed, bashed. Each piece of debris has its own journey, and can tell a vastly different story.

Here’s one last photo.
Photo credit: Tim Wolter
Obviously, this isn’t aluminum. It’s a hewn log. This week a friend pulled it out of a ditch he was excavating at the Roman fort of Vindolanda, just south of Hadrian’s Wall in northern England. The ditch was in use around AD 200 and was sealed about AD 213, making this discarded chunk of wood ~1800 years old! It shouldn’t survive. But because of the soil conditions, it did.

If organics can do that, aluminum can do it that much more easily.

A blanket statement, like “Aluminum takes 200 years* to degrade,” denies the fact that the environment is a complicated thing. Worse, most often it just isn’t true (noted well on NOAA’s Marine Debris FAQ page).

One beer can lost today will be around in AD 4000. Another one will be gone by next year.

If the “facts” on aluminum are so far off, what does that say about the rest of these lists? 10 years for a polyethylene bag to completely go away? Where does that come from?

So a word of caution to environmental sites. Posting, as fact, nice round numbers that have no relation to reality (other than the metaphorical stopped clock being right twice a day) does a disservice. It misinforms -- and it risks discrediting the site when a person sees different results with their own eyes. We should avoid the pitfall of pretending there is any scientific truth behind something that’s just, well, a nice round number.


* This number gets hedged sometimes, from “80 to 200 years” in one direction, to “200 to 500 years” in the opposite. More evidence that there’s little if any science backing it up.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Collection Report April 25, 2012

Wednesday, April 25. 9:15AM. 55 degrees, bright sun, hour after low tide. Had been away for two weeks, as I spent the previous week visiting The Mouse with the family. First missed week on-site since June last year! So, what would the extra week's worth of tides bring in the way of flotsam?
This, and... well, not a lot more. This can was actually among the most interesting finds of the day. More on why down below. But as you can see by this shot...
...the beach was again a clean slate. The little wrack that did exist (mostly in Zone N) was old, dried reeds from 2011 still rolling around:
I've gone on for some months about the changes at Bay View over the past year. But with spring now "sprung," this image tell the story the best:
In an age of global sea-level rise and beach loss, the dunes at Bay View are actually advancing. 20 feet down the beach slope just in the past year! That can only happen if the energy of the sea lets it happen. A few bad waves, and you get this:
The energy coming in here is just weaker than it was a year ago. Waves aren't making it as high up the slope. And they're carrying far less detritus -- natural and manmade -- than before. The best logic behind this is that the seafloor is shifting. Sand bars have reared their heads at Bay View during very low tides. Natural buffers, absorbing the fury of the ocean -- and blocking seafloor debris. For how long? Don't know.

But for now, they cause this result. Zone N:
31 finds:
  • Building materials: 4 (asphalt)
  • Foam/Styrofoam: 4 (3 foam scraps, 1 cup bottom)
  • Fishing misc.: 0
  • Food-related plastics: 3 (2 wrappers, 1 straw)
  • Food-related metal/glass: 2 (can, can scrap)
  • Nonfood/unknown plastics: 6 (2 toys, tennisball, package scrap, 2 scraps <1")
  • Cigarette filters/plastics: 11
  • Paper/wood: 1 (paper scrap)
  • Misc./unique: 0
A few locally lost toys for my daughter's collection. A few scraps. A few thoughtless smokers. A rotted can...

Quickly over to Zone S:
9 finds:
  • Building materials: 0
  • Foam/Styrofoam: 2
  • Fishing misc.: 3 (fishing line, shotgun shell, shell wadding)
  • Food-related plastics: 1 (bottlecap)
  • Food-related metal/glass: 0
  • Nonfood/unknown plastics: 0
  • Cigarette filters/plastics: 2
  • Paper/wood: 1 (bedpost finial)
  • Misc./unique: 0
A bedpost finial? Really?

So the game here has changed. But back to that aluminum can.
You've surely seen those enviromentalist site lists, showing how long things take to break down:
If you say "It takes 200 years for an aluminum can to break down!" and I can find one that's rotting away after ~6 months, you risk losing me for everything else you try to say. We all love round numbers; but we're a little more partial to our own eyes.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Fighting the Tide

The first half of this week found my daughter and me in southern New Jersey. One day we rode down to Ocean City, a lovely coastal resort town with a 2 1/2 mile boardwalk and bustling tourist industry.

Ocean City is actually a barrier island. An ephemeral sand mound that forms in front of mainlands, and shifts in and out of existence within a few centuries -- the blink of a geological eye. But, as at many barrier islands, Ocean City's charms quickly drew settlers, investments, and infrastructure. And they now want to stay put.

Cue the eternal fight between nature and man, with the boardwalk and beach as the front line. This town is no stranger to nature's wrath.
1962 Ash Wednesday storm
1991 October "Perfect Storm"
Over the past century engineers have dumped countless tons of imported sand onto her beaches, only to watch it wash away again. 22 times from 1952 to 1995 to a tune of $83 million (p.3 of the PDF), a $21 million effort in 2010, and $7 million more in 2012. Here is the latest effort -- an artificial dune system, staked off from foot traffic and heavily planted with dune grass and beach plums.
Taken by the author, May 1, 2012
The hope is that this manufactured dune will absorb storm surges and help maintain the beach -- so tourists will continue to come, frolic, and spend money. It may, or may not, for a while. But sea level is rising...
Remarkable NOAA Website on sea-level trends:
...and will continue to rise. It's a losing battle, getting more expensive as the waves strengthen. Eventually the annual funds will run dry. Then? Then comes a choice between a few options, all bad.

Which makes Ocean City just one of thousands of such spots around the world here in the 21st Century.

The archaeologist in me has seen this before. This is Ostia, for centuries imperial Rome's proud port town:
But by the time St. Augustine visited it around AD 400, parts of the city were a swamp, and rubble had been dumped along the Tiber to hold it back. A few generations later the city was a ruin of hovels. It became so infested with swamp disease and malaria that later scavengers largely left it alone. In a way, a slow-death Pompeii, only rediscovered in the 20th Century.

And it's not just oceans and seas that change with time. Here's Hadrian's Wall in Cumbria, northern England,  running east to west (top to bottom), approaching what was once the eastern abutment to the Roman bridge over the River Irthing (bottom of picture).
Except... where's the river? It's moved, about 100 feet west, over the past 1800 years. A raging flood or two changed its course, undercut the western abutment, and brought low this engineering marvel. One of many Hadrian's Wall bridges that met similar fates.

Bridges. Cities. Monuments to man's ingenuity. Laid to waste.

So what does all this have to do with the Flotsam Diaries? Everything. Today we build condos & business districts at the edge of shifting sands. We build whole cities in flood plains. We fill them with plastic. And then we're shocked when Mother Nature does what Mother Nature does.
New Orleans, 9th Ward, post-Hurricane Katrina 2005
Back at Ocean City, nature is again going to do what she does. Sooner or later. Regardless of a man-made sand dune. And when she does, there will just be that much more persistent plastic wreckage in the ocean for my daughter's grandchildren to deal with. Because of the choices that we make today.

So maybe we could make better choices?