There’s an adage is discard studies that although we throw things “away,” there really is no such place. The ocean has been a convenient “away” for centuries, the idea being that the vast quantities of water can dilute anything, and its status as a last frontier makes it “ideal” for nuclear waste deposits and other waste. The ocean is also downhill from everything, making it a repository for all things plastic and anything else long-lived enough to make the journey to the sea.

Chair at the bottom of Monterey Canyon, nearly 10,500 feet down. Image copyright 2003, MBARI.

Chair at the bottom of Monterey Canyon, nearly 10,500 feet down. Image copyright 2003, MBARI.

In late May, a group of scientists from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute published a report about deep sea dumping captured by remotely operated vehicles off the west coast of the US over two decades. The article is open access and available here for download. They catalogue the types of debris, its distribution, and the amount of flora and fauna that has colonized the waste (about 37%, in case you’re curious). The report also includes some beautiful photographs, and they, along with a few new ones, have been republished in a recent edition of Wired Magazine.

What makes this report so unique is that there is very little knowledge of about deep ocean waste, despite public and professional interest. Using ROVs is expensive and slow, making large area, comprehensive studies quite rare. This makes the MBARI study fairly unique, and well worth a look.

One the the study makes clear: In the cold, dark, still ocean deep, most waste survives perfectly intact for hundreds if not thousands of years like a vast cryogenic freezer, making the ocean the ultimate trash archive.

From the article: The relationship between rugosity and debris distribution in Monterey Canyon. MBARI ROV surveys over the 22-year study period are shown in blue. The distribution of natural debris (drift kelp, wood) in Monterey Bay is indicated by the blue circles; the distribution of anthropogenic marine debris is indicated by the orange triangles. The red box outlines a “clean” section of the canyon.

From the article: The relationship between rugosity and debris distribution in Monterey Canyon. MBARI ROV surveys over the 22-year study period are shown in blue. The distribution of natural debris (drift kelp, wood) in Monterey Bay is indicated by the blue circles; the distribution of anthropogenic marine debris is indicated by the orange triangles. The red box outlines a “clean” section of the canyon.

From the report:  Relative frequency of marine debris observations of the six most common categories shown by year for MBARI's three ROVs.

From the report: Relative frequency of marine debris observations of the six most common categories shown by year for MBARI’s three ROVs.

A young rockfish hides in a discarded shoe, 1,548 feet deep in San Gabriel Canyon, off Southern California. Image copyright 2010, MBARI

A young rockfish hides in a discarded shoe, 1,548 feet deep in San Gabriel Canyon, off Southern California. Image copyright 2010, MBARI

Max Liboiron is a postdoctoral researcher with the Intel Science and Technology Center for Social Computing and the Superstorm Research Lab.