One of Earth's most remote islands hides a troubling fact
Tuesday, May 16, 2017, 3:49 - Henderson Island is among the world's most remote places and has a staggering population of zero. But along the island's shores, scientists have found a troubling discovery — its beaches hold the highest density of plastic pollution recorded anywhere on the planet.
A study published by the U.S. scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that — despite being more than 3107 miles away from the nearest population centre — Henderson Island is polluted with an estimated 37.7 million pieces of plastic.
The latest scientific expedition to the island, conducted by British conservation organization RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds), found that the beaches were littered with up to 671 items per square metre.
"What's happened on Henderson Island shows there's no escaping plastic pollution even in the most distant parts of our oceans," said Dr. Jenniver Lavers, the study's lead author, in an interview with Phys.org.
"Far from being the pristine 'deserted island' that people might imagine of such a remote place, Henderson Island is a shocking but typical example of how plastic debris is affecting the environment on a global scale."
Located roughly halfway between Chile and New Zealand, Henderson Island is recognized as a UNESCO world heritage site.
Map view of Henderson Island, Pitcairn Islands. Credit: Google Maps
Due to how remote it is, the Pitcairn Islands area is only visited by researchers every five to ten years. Still, it's located close to the centre of the South Pacific Gyre ocean current, which makes it a key point for debris carried through from South America or pollution deposited by fishing boats.
Based on sampling at five sites, Lavers told Phys.org that its estimated more than 17 tonnes of plastic debris has washed up on the island, with more than 3,570 pieces of trash deposited daily on one beach alone.
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"It's likely that our data actually underestimates the true amount of debris on Henderson Island, as we were only able to sample pieces bigger than two millimetres [.08 of an inch] down to a depth of 10 centimeters [3.9 inches], and we were unable to sample along cliffs and rocky coastline," Lavers said.
She adds that plastic debris is a hazard for many species who are entangled in it, or ingest it. Yet more than 300 million tonnes of plastic manufactured annually goes un-recycled, leaving a long-term impact on oceans.