After Sailing 3,000 Miles ... It's Official Microplastics Are Everywhere
The 5 Gyres Institute sailed 3,000 miles in June—from Miami to the Bahamas to Bermuda and ending in New York City—sampling the sea surface along the entire voyage for plastic pollution. Sadly, our research once again demonstrates how prolific and widespread plastic is in our oceans. We found microplastics, pieces smaller than a grain of rice, dominating each of the 38 samples taken during the three week-expedition through the North Atlantic Subtropical Gyre, a series of clockwise rotating currents between the U.S. and Europe.
What we found in our samples, confirms our understanding that plastics quickly shred in the open sea due to UV sunlight. We have dubbed this abundance of fragments, which are being consumed by sea life as well as slowly settling to the seafloor, as plastic smog. This plastic smog that overwhelmingly pollutes our oceans has gone global, emanating from our densely populated coastlines.
Consider the smog that hovers in the air above our major cities. It is composed of fine particles of carbon swirled by atmospheric currents and sometimes adrift for hundreds of miles before settling to the ground. The plastic smog in our oceans is a particulate of hydrocarbons swirled by ocean currents and drifting for thousands of miles before possibly settling to the seafloor. If you can imagine a plastic smog in our oceans, then you can imagine our cities are the horizontal smokestacks pumping plastic into the ocean.
On June 23, the 5-Gyres’ ship the Mystic, a 172 foot three-masted schooner, sailed into the New York Harbor. Our surface nets dragged up and down the Hudson River and the bay, and we were shocked by what we found.
Our last sample collected south of Manhattan was the most polluted of them all, with nearly 500 bits of plastic filling our tiny net in just one hour. New York City is pumping millions of particles of plastic into the Atlantic Ocean every day. The objects found included cigar tips, tampon applicators, condoms, straws, fragments of plastic bags, preproduction plastic pellets and hundreds of unidentifiable plastic fragments. New York City is feeding the plastic smog.
The situation may seem hopeless, but there is tremendous ambition in the resilience of environmental organizations throughout the state of New York that are working to reduce plastic waste entering New York waterways. More than 40 organizations from every corner of the state are working together to stem the tide of plastic into New York’s waters.
This coalition worked tirelessly throughout the 2015 New York state legislative session to pass a ban on plastic microbeads in personal care products. Tiny plastic microbeads in products such as facial scrubs and toothpastes (yes, some toothpastes leave plastic particles between your teeth and in our gums) are designed to be washed down the drain, where they often escape sewage treatment and pollute our waters. While the bill passed the Assembly and enjoyed overwhelming support in the Senate, it fell victim to Albany dysfunction, and did not pass into law this year. Fortunately, our neighbors in Connecticut successfully passed a ban on microbeads this year and we are poised to win the fight in New York next year.
Therefore, it is essential that residents of New York remain vigilant and aware of our plastic consumption. The reduction of plastic bags, foamed polystyrene and microbeads in personal care products will collectively have a meaningful and positive effect on the quality of the waters surrounding New York and beyond. Individual, voluntary efforts are a great start. However, legislation is undeniably needed to solve our plastic problem once and for all. All of us, including the industries that make plastic products, are responsible for the problem, and through smart and fair legislation we can be the solution.
Marcus Eriksen, Ph.D. director of research at The 5 Gyres Institute; Sandra Meola, communications and outreach at NY/NJ Baykeeper; Brian Smith, associate executive director at Citizens Campaign for the Environment; Sherri A. Mason, Ph.D. professor of chemistry. at SUNY Fredonia; Reece Paecheo at Surfrider, New York City; and David T. Conover, education director at Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, Inc.
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When hurricanes and other extreme storms unleash downpours like Tropical Storm Beta has been doing in the South, the floodwater doesn't always stay within the government's flood risk zones.
New research suggests that nearly twice as many properties are at risk from a 100-year flood today than the Federal Emergency Management Agency's flood maps indicate.
Flooding Outside the Zones<p>About <a href="https://furmancenter.org/files/Floodplain_PopulationBrief_12DEC2017.pdf" target="_blank">15 million</a> Americans live in FEMA's current 100-year flood zones. The designation warns them that their properties face a 1% risk of flooding in any given year. They must obtain flood insurance if they want a federally ensured loan – insurance that helps them recover from flooding.</p><p>In Greater Houston, however, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1539-6924.2012.01840.x" target="_blank">47% of claims</a> made to FEMA across three decades before Hurricane Harvey were outside of the 100-year flood zones. Harris County, recognizing that FEMA flood maps don't capture the full risk, now <a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/floodinsurance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recommends that every household</a> in Houston and the rest of the county have flood insurance.</p><p>New risk models point to a similar conclusion: Flood risk in these areas outstrips expectations in the current FEMA flood maps.</p><p>One of those models, from the <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/2020-national-flood-risk-assessment-highlights/" target="_blank">First Street Foundation</a>, estimates that the number of properties at risk in a 100-year storm is 1.7 times higher than the FEMA maps suggest. Other <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aaac65" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">researchers</a> find an even higher margin, with 2.6 to 3.1 times more people exposed to serious flooding in a 100-year storm than FEMA estimates.</p>
What FEMA’s Flood Maps Miss<p>Understanding why areas outside the 100-year flood zones are flooding more often than the FEMA maps suggest involves larger social and environmental issues. Three reasons stand out.</p><p>First, some places rely on relatively old FEMA maps that don't account for recent urbanization.</p><p>Urbanization matters because impervious surfaces – think pavement and buildings – are not effective sponges like natural landscapes can be. Moreover, the process for updating floodplain maps is locally variable and can take years to complete. Famously, New York City was updating its maps when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012 but hadn't finished, meaning flood maps in effect <a href="https://projects.propublica.org/nyc-flood/" target="_blank">were from 1983</a>. FEMA is required to assess whether updates are needed every five years, but the <a href="https://www.fema.gov/cis/nation.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">majority of maps</a> <a href="https://www.oig.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/assets/2017/OIG-17-110-Sep17.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are older</a>.</p><p>Second, binary thinking can lead people to an underaccounting of risk, and that can mean communities fail to take steps that could protect a neighborhood from flooding. The logic goes: if I'm not in the 100-year floodplain, then I'm not at risk. Risk perception <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/ab195a" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> backs this up. FEMA-delineated flood zones are the major factor shaping flood mitigation behaviors.</p><p>Third, the era of climate change scuttles conventional assumptions.</p><p>As the planet warms, extreme storms are becoming <a href="https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/" target="_blank">more common and severe</a>. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at a high rate, computer models suggest that the chances of a severe storm dropping 20 inches of rain on Texas in any given year will increase from about 1% at the end of the last century to 18% at the end of this one, a chance of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1716222114" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">once every 5.5 years</a>. So far, <a href="https://www.rstreet.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/195.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">FEMA hasn't taken into account the impact climate change is having</a> on extreme weather and sea level rise.</p>
Racial Disparities in Flooding Outside the Zones<p>So, who is at risk?</p><p>Years of research and evidence from storms have highlighted social inequalities in areas with a high risk of flooding. But most local governments have less understanding of the social and demographic composition of communities that experience flood impacts outside of flood zones.</p><p>In analyzing the damage from Hurricane Harvey in the Houston area, I found that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aba0fe" target="_blank">Black and Hispanic residents disproportionately experienced flooding</a> in areas beyond FEMA's 100-year flood zones.</p><p>With the majority of flooding from Hurricane Harvey occurring outside of 100-year flood zones, this meant that the overall impact of Harvey was racially unequal too.</p><p>Research into where flooding occurs in Baltimore, Chicago and Phoenix points to some of the potential causes. <a href="https://www.nap.edu/read/25381/chapter/4#16" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In Baltimore and Chicago</a>, for example, aging storm and sewer infrastructure, poor construction and insufficient efforts to mitigate flooding are part of the flooding problem in some predominantly Black neighborhoods.</p>
What Can Be Done About It<p>Better accounting for those three reasons could substantively improve risk assessments and help cities prioritize infrastructure improvements and flood mitigation projects in these at-risk neighborhoods.</p><p>For example, First Street Foundation's risk maps account for <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/flood-model-methodology_overview/" target="_blank">climate change</a> and present <a href="https://floodfactor.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ratings</a> on a scale from 1 to 10. FEMA, which works with communities to update flood maps, is <a href="https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/1521054297905-ca85d066dddb84c975b165db653c9049/TMAC_2017_Annual_Report_Final508(v8)_03-12-2018.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">exploring rating systems</a>. And the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently <a href="https://www.nationalacademies.org/news/2019/03/new-report-calls-for-different-approaches-to-predict-and-understand-urban-flooding" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">called for a new generation of flood maps</a> that takes climate change into account.</p><p>Including recent urbanization in those assessments will matter too, especially in fast-growing cities like Houston, where <a href="https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1boBRyDvMFW6W" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">386 new square miles</a> of impervious surfaces were created in the last 20 years. That's greater than the land area of New York City. New construction in one area can also <a href="https://scalawagmagazine.org/2018/01/city-in-a-swamp-as-houston-booms-its-flood-problems-are-only-getting-worse/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">impact older neighborhoods downhill</a> during a flood, as some Houston communities discovered in Hurricane Harvey.</p><p>Improving risk assessments is needed not just to better prepare communities for major flood events, but also to prevent racial inequalities – in housing and beyond – from <a href="https://www.npr.org/2019/03/05/688786177/how-federal-disaster-money-favors-the-rich" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">growing</a> after the unequal impacts of disasters.</p>
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