Tuesday, August 07, 2007

CN Rail Derailment

This past Saturday, we had a bit of local excitement, as CN Rail had yet another train derailment which made the national news. The accident happened just a couple kilometers from our office (which is located in the railway industrial site in Prince George). The track that was involved in the accident actually passes about ten feet behind our company’s garage before it swings out and along the Fraser River.

I’ve got a friend who works as an engineer at CN, so I got the whole story that evening, but the simple version is that a train was unable to stop in time and hit another train that was crossing that truck, and the engine and a couple cars derailed. The engine caught on fire, and a load of lumber and a diesel tanker also burned. Since the accident was right across the river from the center of the city, pretty much everybody in Prince George was able to get a good view of it. And of course, there was a lot of anger and concern because this was just another in a long string of recent railway accidents in western Canada, and because the diesel may or may not have spilled into the Fraser (endangering the Sockeye salmon, which are just starting to spawn). Here’s a photo:

They also had water bombers circling for several hours, so it was pretty good entertainment for a Saturday afternoon of a holiday long weekend. I was working through the day, so I didn’t manage to go down to the park across the river from the accident to get a better photo. But you can probably find a decent photo at this link:


Anyway, the thing that struck me as being kind of ironic about this was listening to everybody talk about the accident. People seemed pretty angry about this being such a huge environmental problem (especially because a body of water was involved). But really, it wasn’t very big compared to other environmental problems that we cause. The government probably introduces far more oil into the environment every year just by putting used motor oil on forestry roads around here for dust control. And there are lots of other much larger (global-scale) environmental problems happening around us every day that nobody gets worked up about, which I think is rather frustrating. Take the case of all the plastic accumulating in our oceans as a prime example.

In the center of the Pacific Ocean, there is apparently an area that is approximately the size of Texas, literally (litter-ly?) covered with plastic trash. Due to the specific currents and wind patterns, this area is sort of like an oceanic desert with very little marine life or biodiversity – it is just a large featureless geographic area of little interest to humans. The winds are very minimal in this area, so the entire area just sort of swirls around extremely slowly, without much happening for excitement. The water is deep, and no plants are able to grow on the bottom of the sea since sunlight doesn’t penetrate that far. The bottom of the ocean is nutrient-rich from millions of years of organics sinking through the water, but the fish and aquatic life generally can’t get down to this nutrient layer, and there are no winds or strong currents to stir it up and get it near enough the surface to be used as a source of food for marine life. The only real food supply in the area is the development of plankton (based on photosynthesis) but there isn’t much in the way of traditional fish, just lots of jellyfish and similar species, which have no commercial interest to humans.

Anyway, plastics don’t really biodegrade. Most other trash does, but the only thing that plastics do is break down (after a number of years) into smaller pieces of plastic. Eventually, these plastics will break down into individual molecules of plastic, so they are out of sight, but not out of mind. Many scientists figure that these individual molecules of plastic may remain intact for centuries before they are finally naturally torn apart (in a chemical sense). Unfortunately, these molecules of plastic enter the food chain in smaller organisms, and eventually many of them make their way up into the bodies of larger marine or avian organisms (or even into peoples’ bodies), where they become toxic in significant quantities.

Studies of the large oceanic accumulation of plastic, the area known as the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, have shown that the volume of plastics floating around is about six times the volume of naturally occuring zooplankton. For every square kilometer of surface area, there are many kilograms of discarded plastic items of every type imaginable. Now this isn’t something that is completely covering the surface of the water, but there is enough material there to make the ocean’s surface look like a McDonald's parking lot at 1:30am on a Saturday night.

Hundreds of thousands of marine birds and mammals are dying from the plastics in our oceans every year. No national governments seem to care about the trash accumulating in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, because it is not in any nation’s territorial waters. Since it isn’t a rich aquatic zone, no nations rely on it for commercial fisheries. I wish there was a way that some nation could provide funding for some ships to go out into that area with large surface trawl nets of some sort to collect the plastics (without somehow snaring the marine life) and then incinerate the trash. In the coming decades and centuries, even though this area is not a major source of food for people, it would still be nice to clean it up. I’m not a big fan of leaving garbage everywhere, as you can probably guess.

Here’s a photo of a dead seabird, which has decayed somewhat so you can see the stomach contents:

Basically, untold numbers of animals are dying of starvation, while their stomachs are actually quite full. It’s a shame that they are full of the trash that humans are producing, but it’s just one more example of how we’re destroying our planet.

And for all the people who complain about how global warming is causing the ice caps to melt, which is raising the levels of the Earth's ocean by a couple millimeters per year, maybe it isn't global warming? Maybe the levels are rising because we're filling our oceans up with garbage.