What brought nationally recognized scientists and artists from around the world together on a remote Alaska beach this month?
During a hot, sunny June week, a team of oceanographers, technologists, conservationists and artists explored beaches on the southern coastline of the Kenai Peninsula, Shuyak and Afognak Islands and Katmai National Park and Preserve on the Alaska Peninsula.
The expedition was part of a collaboration between the Anchorage Museum and Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward, exploring the impacts of marine debris on a small piece of Alaska's 6,640-mile coastline. The project is titled Gyre after the giant, slowly twisting eddies that hold much of the trash now swirling in the ocean currents.
"Marine debris is a problem that our ocean and beaches have been facing for a long time, especially in Alaska," said Peter Murphy, NOAA's regional coordinator for Alaska. "It's a problem with many challenges, but also a problem that can be solved by working together to change behaviors and prevent more debris getting in the ocean, and that takes people being aware of the problem."
Human-generated debris in the oceans of the world causes an assortment of troubles for wildlife. Animals become entangled in fishing nets and line. Birds ingest small pieces of trash, then die of starvation.
There are five large ocean-based gyres that contain tons of plastics. The plastic breaks down to the molecular level, but never disappears.
"Toxins are percolating up the food chain," said Howard Ferren, director of conservation at the Alaska SeaLife Center.
Oceanographers study the movement of the debris that the oceans contain and take samples for analysis. Ferren said that "all the attributes which make plastics commercially viable make them durable trash." He hopes to educate people to understand that, while plastics have a necessary role in society, they need to be manufactured and disposed of properly.
As the expedition portion of the project wound down, the focus turned from science to art. Five artists on the expedition, as well as more than a dozen additional artists from around the world, now plan to turn the debris collected into installation art pieces. Resulting artwork will be exhibited at the Anchorage Museum from February to September 2014.
Julie Decker, chief curator of the museum and the curator for the Gyre project said the purpose of the artistic component was to foster awareness and discussion.
"It's a look at plastic as a modern material (good and bad and everywhere in between), its travel around the world via our oceans, and a look at how human action and consumption can become global, not just local, through ways we don't often think about," she said. "The artists are looking at their own beaches, as collectors and researchers, [to] create artwork to convey this contrast between man and nature, to suggest the impact of consumption and the things we discard on our environment, and their own personal connections to the ocean."