Hoping to learn more about one of the most glaring examples of waste and environmental pollution on Earth, a group of scientists set sail from San Francisco this week to the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch," a massive vortex of floating plastic trash estimated by some researchers to be twice the size of Texas.
The bobbing debris field, where currents swirl everything from discarded fishing line to plastic bottles into one soupy mess, is about 1,000 miles west of California.
"This is a problem that is kind of out of sight, out of mind, but it is having devastating impacts on the ocean. I felt we needed to do something about it," said Mary Crowley, co-founder of Project Kaisei, a nonprofit expedition that is partnering on the voyage with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif.
Not much is known about the garbage patch phenomenon, including when it began forming or even its exact boundaries. Scientists believe trash — most of it plastic that won't decompose — washes down storm drains and rivers, eventually drifting into several large ocean vortices where currents swirl like water in a drain.
The expedition has two ships to study the garbage patch's size, how the plastic affects wildlife, and whether it may be possible to clean some of it up.
Cleaning up the patch may not be possible.
While large pieces can be pulled out of the water, most of the brittle plastic has broken into tiny fragments, floating just below the surface. They are easily ingested by birds and fish, entering the food chain.
A 2006 report said that in the central Pacific, there are up to 6 pounds of marine litter to every pound of plankton, and roughly 46,000 pieces of plastic litter are floating on every square mile of the oceans.
San Jose Mercury News
Prolific panda bears cub at zoo
Panda Bai Yun has given birth to her fifth cub, the San Diego Zoo announced Wednesday. The pink panda newborn weighed about 4 ounces and is about the size of a stick of butter. Its gender won't be known for about a month, and it won't get a name for 100 days, in keeping with Chinese tradition. Mom and cub will lead private lives for the next four months or so, except for appearances on the zoo's live Panda Cam, which can be watched online. The cub becomes just the 13th panda in the United States. Pandas are notoriously poor breeders, one reason their species is endangered. Only about 1,500 giant pandas remain in the wild, and about 250 live in captivity.
Famed koala faces dangerous surgery
A koala made famous by a photograph of her drinking from a firefighter's water bottle as wildfires ravaged Australia earlier this year is about to undergo a risky surgery, animal shelter officials said. "Sam" the koala suffered second- and third-degree burns on her paws in the February fires. But a spokeswoman at the shelter Sam is at says the koala has developed abdominal cysts due to a disease called urogenital chlamydiosis, which affects up to 50 percent of Australia's koala population. The disease can cause infertility, urinary tract infections and blindness and can be life-threatening. Sam will have surgery today, and the prognosis for surviving the operation is not good.
WWII bomb found in German river
The harbor in Hamburg, Germany, was closed for several hours after workers doing dredging work unearthed a World War II bomb from the bed of the Elbe River. In addition to shutting down shipping traffic, nearby offices were evacuated as the 500-pound British bomb was brought to shore and defused. WWII-era bombs are regularly found in Germany.