Satellite snaps image of uninhabited Pacific island covered in plastic

20 Apr 2018

Image: wonderisland/Shutterstock

Ahead of Earth Day, new images taken by the Sentinel-2 satellite show a depressing picture when it comes to plastic pollution in our oceans.

We may have reached a turning point when it comes to the recycling of plastic waste, but there’s a sense that it will be too little too late for many creatures and beaches surrounding the world’s oceans.

For example, a recent survey of the area known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch showed that it contains approximately 1.8trn pieces of plastic, of which 94pc are microplastics invisible to the naked eye.

So, as we approach Earth Day (22 April), the world’s focus on plastic waste is being ramped up further, with the Earth Day Network calling on people to drastically curb their use of plastic and help make our oceans and fields clean once again.

However, highlighting the damage already done, the European Space Agency (ESA) has released a video showing a series of satellite images of Henderson Island in the South Pacific.

The uninhabited island is designated as a UNESCO heritage site and is one of the world’s last two raised coral atolls whose ecosystems remain almost unaffected by human contact.

But, as the images taken by the Sentinel-2 satellite show, there is still a substantial amount of plastic waste that has washed up on its shore.

Current state of affairs

A study in 2017 looking at several beaches on the island revealed that it has the “highest density of rubbish anywhere in the world” because of its location in the South Pacific Gyre, one of the Earth’s rotating ocean currents.

Estimates suggest that almost 40m pieces of plastic have washed up on its shore, weighing almost 18 tonnes. In fact, at its northern beach, the island can see up to 270 items of plastic land on the beach every day.

There is hope now among scientists and those involved in the Earth Day Network that the spotlight thrown on the crisis by David Attenborough and others this year will encourage policymakers and the public to change their ways.

In Ireland, some efforts are being made to get children involved, too. Among them is the Microplastics Awareness Project, led by scientists from Dublin Institute of Technology and funded by Science Foundation Ireland under the Discover Programme Call 2017.

It will host interactive science workshops on the beach and in the classroom to encourage children and young people to tackle the threat of microplastics and plastic waste in their local communities.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic