Monday, June 8, 2009

Plastic Vortex Hinders Search For Air France Flight 447

In January of this year, I did two blogs about the giant plastic vortex in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans that no one wants us to know about. (Click here for part 1, click here for part 2 of my blog.)

Environmentalists have been sounding the alarm about this plastic garbage dump for years. The foremost fear being that plastic does not biodegrade (forever whole in a landfill); but, it does photodegrade. The photodegradation process means that instead of remaining whole, the plastic just keeps shredding into smaller and smaller particles. The pieces ultimately become small enough that fish mistake them for food and ingest them. Guess whose plate these fish eventually end up on?

The plastic vortex has been in the news for the last week for a surprisingly different reason than environmentalists thought it would be. Air France Flight 447 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean near Brazil this week (the location of the Atlantic plastic vortex). The other is located in the Pacific Ocean – together they are known as the Western and Eastern Pacific Garbage Patches.

Map locating the crash zone of Air France 447 in the Atlantic, where 17 bodies were recovered at the weekend. Photo:/AFP

The major obstacle to overcome in the rescue attempt was that the aircraft was not on radar when it went down; so, officials had no real idea where the aircraft was. That meant rescue workers had to look for floating debris and work their way back to the plane. Not as easy as one would think.

Rescuers were not optimistic about their chances of finding either the plane or the black box. Survivors were out of the question.

John Perry Fish of American Underwater Search and Survey on Cape Cod:
“They'll have to work with flotsam. You get the wind and current data and work back. You have to distinguish between the light material that is on the surface and exposed to the wind, and the buoyant material, which is floating, but just under the surface and not exposed to the winds.”

But the ocean in that area is so garbage-filled that rescue workers are having trouble locating any signs of the plane among the floating piles of waste. The search was hampered earlier when rescue workers reported they had found debris from the plane – two buoys and a cargo pallet. Valuable time was wasted before workers realized that what had been found was not from the plane; but, was just floating debris that came from a cruise ship, oil platform or land. Yachts, refrigerators, plastic bottles, anything you want to name have been found floating discarded in the garbage vortexes.

Photo: jdj150 via Flickr. Would you be able to distinguish between plane debris and just plain debris from this photo?

Officials plan to send in submarines as a last resort to recover the black box. A couple of recovery photos I thought were interesting.

Brazil has recovered the tail fin belonging to the Air France jet that plunged into the Atlantic June 1, 2009 killing 228 people, as well as more human remains from the doomed flight. Photo:/AFP

A handout picture from the Brazilian Navy press office shows crew members of the Brazilian Frigate 'Constituicao' recovering debris from Air France flight 447, which crashed into the Atlantic Ocean on June 1. Seventeen bodies now have been recovered from the debris of an Air France jet that plunged into the Atlantic nearly a week ago, as investigators probed the tragedy. Photo:/AFP

While finding the plane earlier would not have changed the outcome regarding survivors - they all died before they hit the water; it may have meant more remains recovered for grieving friends and family.

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