One Big Wave, and Millions of Lost Legos

Lego dragons Bigbury

Photos courtesy of Tracey Williams

On Feb. 13, 1997, about 20 miles off the coast of England, a massive wave hit the freighter Tokio Express, toppling 62 giant containers into the rough north Atlantic seas.

Trapped inside one of them: nearly 5 million Legos. Many floated to the surface. Carried by currents, they’re still being found on beaches around the world nearly two decades later. Others remain on the ocean floor. It’s not unusual for fishermen trawling the Atlantic to haul up tiny Legos.

The fact that so many of the pieces were nautical themed – sea dragons, pirate swords, sea grass and scuba gear, among others – has turned the Lego spill into one of the most famous and unusual marine debris incidents in recent maritime history.

In Newquay, a seaside town in England, writer and longtime beachcomber Tracey Williams started a Facebook page a few years ago – Legos Lost at Sea – that tracks the whereabouts of the lost Legos as they wash up onto beaches.

Williams recently spoke to the Beach Chair Scientist blog about her work, and you can hear more of what she has to say below. But she hopes to turn the public fascination, much of it generated from a recent BBC story on the spill, into a teaching moment about the harmful environmental impact of marine debris.

Lego octopus Terena

“Clearly, 5 million pieces of Legos spilling into the ocean isn’t good for the environment,” Williams said in a recent phone interview. After the BBC interviewed her about her site a while back, the publicity resulted in people contacting her with stories about beach-bound Legos around the world.

“It has connected beachcombers all around the world, which is fascinating,” Williams said.

She received one report of a Lego flipper found on an Australian beach. She’s also heard from the family of a woman who had scoured the beaches for Lego dragons as a hobby in her 80s, passing her finds along t0 younger generations.

“Obviously, marine debris is a big problem. But I think many children have been captivated by this whole Lego story … I think it reminds people of their childhood. It’s the whole issue of marine debris. Oceanographers are interested in how far it’s spread.”

Meanwhile, she also hears from fishermen who come across Lego pieces in their nets.

“Half of it sinks and half of it floats,” Williams said, referring to the sorts of Legos that fell off the Tokio Express. “So clearly, while we’re finding certain items washed up on our shores like the spear guns and the flippers, fishermen are actually finding other pieces like window frames and car chassis.”

While the lost Legos have made for fun beach combing and treasure hunts, there are bigger questions beneath the surface. If the contents of just one toppled shipping container can spread around the world for decades, what about far bigger and more dangerous spills that go unnoticed because they don’t happen to have Legos in them?

“There were 62 containers that fell off the Tokio Express back in 1997 and we only know about what  was in three of them,” Williams said.

“What’s in all of the others and when will that all wash ashore?”

You can listen to more of Williams and the story of the lost Legos here:

A Natural Eye: Delaware official sees science and art in state’s coastline

By Pamela Aquilani

 

Tony Pratt’s career in science began because of a love for the outdoors. And yet, the more he climbed up through management, the less time he spent outside.

Pratt runs the Shoreline and Waterway Management section of Delaware’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, which oversees regulation of coastal construction, dredging projects and beach replenishment.

With Delaware’s beaches contributing an estimated $7 billion to the state’s economy and nearly 60,000 jobs, Pratt, who has been called the state’s beach guru, has a high-profile job. But it’s also one that keeps him in the office most days working policy, budget and personnel issues.

Still, despite the demands of his day job, you’re likely to find Pratt crouched along the waterline or in a mucky marsh near one Delaware’s beaches working as a nature photographer during his off hours.

Long before he became a scientist, Pratt was taking pictures. Now a professional, he got his first camera growing up in Massachusetts. In the sixth grade, he and a friend built a makeshift darkroom in a bathroom, developing tiny 2×2 prints. And he pored through the pages of his parents’ magazines: Look, National Geographic and Life.

“I don’t think I read a single word,” he told BeachChairScientist.com in a recent phone interview. “The pictures were everything to me.”

Later, he went to Hampshire College, where his classmates included the documentary filmmaker Ken Burns. Pratt brought his camera with him on fieldwork studying the return of coyotes to western Massachusetts. But he was drawn east to the beach and to the study of the pounding waves and the ever-changing coastline that would become his life’s work.

He and his wife later relocated to Delaware and raised three children. All the while, Pratt continued taking photos. He became a sports photographer. He worked the sidelines for his children’s games all the way through college. In 2007, he got an important break. Kevin Fleming, a former staff photographer for National Geographic who lives in Delaware, asked Pratt to help out on a photography project.

Pratt didn’t hesitate to say yes, but he also asked Fleming for a favor. He wanted to tag along the next time Fleming went out shooting.

“He got me to the next level in digital photography,” said Pratt, whose work now is exhibited at Fleming’s store in Rehoboth. “He’s been a great mentor.”

A few months ago, Pratt captured a rarely seen phenomenon called the green flash, which comes off the top of a rising or setting sun and is visible only for a fraction of a second under the perfect atmospheric conditions.

Pratt said there’s no doubt he got lucky. But, he added, there’s luck — and then there’s good luck. And good luck, he said, comes from preparation.

by Tony Pratt

“You go where the subject may be whether it’s the landscape or the wildlife,” he said. “You go where it is. You do your homework. You find out where things are likely to occur … and so you go back and you go back and you go back. And you make yourself be out there.”

It’s Pratt’s job to know everything about Delaware’s beaches, which, of course, helps inform his work as a photographer. But photography has helped Pratt in his day job as a state official, too.

“I do see systems that are sand starved,” he said, talking about his photographic excursions. “It’s not that I would’ve learned about them because of photography. I know about them because it’s part of the job and folks are out there looking.”

“But by the same token, I can go back to the job invigorated and perhaps energized a little bit more because I’ve been out there looking at red knots that are eating horseshoe crabs, and I understand the importance of quality beaches that will allow that phenomenon to continue.”

For more about Tony’s photos, visit TonyPratt.com and to learn more about Delaware’s shoreline management section, click http://www.dnrec.delaware.gov/swc/Shoreline/Pages/Shoreline.aspx

A Scientist’s Inspiration

Ryan K Morris/National Science & Technology Medals Foundation.

Ryan K Morris/National Science & Technology Medals Foundation.

For Dr. Penny Chisholm, a single look into the microscope as an undergraduate student set off a chain of events that led to a lifetime of work, important new research changing our understanding of the oceans and, just recently, an honor from President Obama at the White House.

The Lee and Gerldine Martin Professor of Environmental Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Dr. Chisholm recently shared her thoughts with Beach Chair Scientist on her recent National Medal of Science Award and her research work. She also discusses her work as children’s book author, even sharing her cure for writer’s block.

BCS: You described your recent National Medal of Science Award as a high point of your career and a thrill – something you probably couldn’t have imagined when you were an undergraduate. What first sparked your interest in microbial oceanography?
CHISHOLM: I first viewed phytoplankton under a microscope as an undergraduate at Skidmore College.  I found them beautiful and fascinating.  After a few detours, my studies in graduate school focused on a single species of phytoplankton called Euglena, which is one of the “lab rats” among the phytoplankton. I used it to begin to understand (literally) how these cells get through their day.  But I soon realized that the oceans held enormous challenges and studying them would broaden my horizons. So I sought a post-doc at Scripps Oceanographic Institution to where I studied phytoplankton in the wild.

BCS: After receiving word of your award, you told the MIT newspaper that the honor was particularly gratifying because Phytoplankton had been under-noticed despite being the base of the ocean’s foodweb. That said, what has the medal meant to you in terms of the exposure both for the marine microbiology field and for your research?
CHISHOLM: The Medal came as a complete surprise.  It is not something that is common in my field as it is relatively small compared to some others that are highly represented among the Medalists.  I feel that I accepted the award on behalf of the many oceanographers who have pushed our field forward in leaps and bounds over the past decade.  In addition, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation has generously funded Marine Microbiology for the past 8 years, which has made a tremendous difference in what we have been able to discover.

BCS: For those of us who aren’t in the field, what should we know about this microorganism and why is it so important in helping us get a better understanding of our planet?
CHISHOLM: Phytoplankton are microscopic plants that form the base of the food chain in lakes and oceans. Through photosynthesis- in which they use the sun’s energy to build organic carbon (living matter) from carbon dioxide gas drawn from the air –  they produce the food for all of the other organisms in the ecosystem, from small zooplankton on up to fish. They draw as much CO2 out of the atmosphere each year, and produce as much oxygen, as all the plants on land.  As such they play an important role in balancing the global carbon cycle, which in turn has an influence on Earth’s climate.

My research for the past 25 years has been on a single species of phytoplankton called Prochlorococcus. It is the smallest and most abundant photosynthetic cell on Earth, and is responsible for a sizable fraction of photosynthesis in the oceans.

BCS: Were there any particular people – in or out of science — who helped and encouraged your interest in science at an early age? How so? What’s your message to young people considering getting into the field today?
CHISHOLM: My interest in science grew slowly as I went through school.  I think the most significant step was when my undergraduate advisor at Skidmore College mentioned to me that I could get a PhD if I wanted to. It had never occurred to me.  I loved studying, so that sounded a lot better than getting a job after I graduated.  I was also drawn to science as a “way of knowing”.  I remember being impressed by the idea that you could make measurements and do experiments, and write the results up in a publication and people would believe you.  I think I found appealing the idea of science as a platform for being heard.  Perhaps growing up in the ’50s- when women’s voices did not carry much weight – influenced me in that regard.

BCS: You’re also the author of two children’s books. What if any similarities exist in your work as an author and as a scientist?
CHISHOLM: Working on the children’s books has helped me learn how to boil concepts down to their very essence.  The truth is that we made these books with the hope that not only children, but parents and teachers would learn from them.  The books, which are narrated by the Sun, cover some very fundamental concepts about life on Earth and our dependency on plants and photosynthesis,  that most people do not understand.  I believe that if we all share this understanding, along with a sense of awe about life on our planet, we will have more respect for all of life on Earth and our dependency on it.

BCS: What’s next for you as a writer?
CHISHOLM: I have a few things on my plate.  The most immediate is third children’s book with Molly Bang, called “Buried Sunlight”.  It is about fossil fuels, how they were made over the history of the Earth, and how burning them in a few hundred years time is changing the planet.

BCS: Do scientists get writers block, too – if so, how do you tackle it?
CHISHOLM: Of course!  What I do is go for a walk.  That usually removes the block, and, more importantly, opens new channels.

To learn more about Dr. Chisholm’s research, visit http://chisholmlab.mit.edu, and see her children’s books, Living Sunlight: How Plants Bring Earth to Life and Living Sunlight: How Tiny Plants Feed the Seas.