SCIENTISTS PROPOSE USING SATELLITES TO TRACE PATH OF PACIFIC OCEAN DEBRIS

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By Jan TenBruggencate

HONOLULU, Hawai‘i (August 14, 2000 – Honolulu Advertiser)---Scientists hope to use satellite technology to gain a better understanding of the marine debris issue, both to predict how the debris moves over the ocean and to identify specific chunks of netting and other trash.

Scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are developing techniques that employ satellites to find out where debris such as derelict fishing gear accumulates.

The International Marine Debris Conference, held last week at the Hawai‘i Convention Center, reviewed ways of controlling the amount of dumped and lost fishing gear and other debris that enters the ocean environment.

"Using an array of satellite environmental sensors, oceanographers are now able to observe properties of the ocean surface with much improved … resolution," says an issue paper prepared for the conference by Mary Donohue of the University of Hawai‘i Joint Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research and NOAA researchers Russell Brainard, Michael Parke and David Foley.

Satellites now in orbit can track surface winds, ocean currents, sea surface temperatures and the color or chlorophyll content of the ocean.

Researchers using satellite information and shipboard visual surveys have already identified a large area north of the Hawaiian Islands where currents and wind patterns cause marine debris to build up. It may get denser during certain climate conditions, such as El Niño, the report says.

Because the northernmost Hawaiian islands of Kure, Midway and Pearl and Hermes Atoll are closest to the debris convergence area, they can be expected to run into more debris that the other islands, they said. That is an environmental concern, since the atolls are wildlife refuges with high population of seals, turtles and seabirds that can become entangled, and are home to pristine reefs that can be damaged by large piles of derelict netting.

The authors suggest that the satellite-based information can be used to pinpoint areas of highest debris concentrations, so the debris can be recovered while it is at sea, before it reaches important reefs and nesting areas.

Since satellites lack the resolution to pick out individual debris islands, debris hunters could use aircraft fitted with extremely accurate sensors to spot them and direct recovery boats to them.

The plan is costly, but could be comparable to the cost of the present system of sending divers onto the reefs to cut nets and rope tangles off coral heads, they wrote.

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