Plastic found at bottom of Marianas Trench
When Victor Vescovo’s submarine hit the floor of the Marianas Trench, it sent the sediment swirling.
“At bottom,” the Texas businessman-turned-extreme-explorer said into his headset. “Repeat: At bottom.”
In a control room some 35,853 feet above, Vescovo’s dive team clapped and cheered. Congratulations were in order: they had just set a record. The American had descended deeper into the ocean than any person before him. An upturned Mount Everest would still be a mile from where his vessel then sat.
Vescovo spent four hours down there, he told the Washington Post. The crevice in the western Pacific Ocean is one of the most remote places on Earth, where the sun doesn’t shine and the pressure is crushing. He was literally charting new territory, mapping his route for future researchers, when he noticed something familiar among the otherworldly terrain.
Some sort of plastic waste. Initial reports indicated it was a bag, or maybe a candy wrapper. But those theories weren’t quite right, officials now say. Whether it was flotsam or jetsam is secondary. The find is, no matter what, the imprint of a species that has polluted the planet like none other. A people whose detritus precedes them.
Vescovo spotted it from his titanium cocoon. He was looking out over the Challenger Deep, Earth’s deepest known point, in the trench’s hadal zone, a region of the ocean named after the underworld god of Greek mythology, Hades. What he saw was sublime and serene.
Translucent creatures undulated around his craft, Vescovo said. He was struck at how alive his surroundings were.
“There was definitely life at the very bottom of the ocean,” he said. “It was not dead by any means. ... I felt very excited, privileged to get to see it, but also very much at peace because it really is a quiet, peaceful, place.”
The expedition identified at least three new species of marine animals, its scientists said, including a kind of amphipod, a crustacean that resembles a shrimp. Yet, even as the team discovered new life, it could not escape signs of the man-made havoc that will likely kill off many more species faster than humans can discover them.
“I was disappointed to see human contamination in the deepest point in the ocean,” Vescovo said. “With over seven billion people on the Earth, the oceans are going to be impacted negatively by mankind, but I hope we can at least minimize it in the future.”
Reports of Vescovo’s findings prompted Chelsea Clinton, vice chair of the Clinton Foundation, which advocates for ocean cleanup projects, to pose a dire question on Twitter: “A sub dive 7 miles deep in the ocean at the Marianas Trench finds possible new species of shrimp and a plastic bag. How long will the former survive if there’s more of the latter?”
An alarming, landmark United Nations report released this month illustrated a version of Clinton’s point: as the population of humans has rapidly increased, the population of everything else has steadily declined.
“How long can the two trend lines continue to head in opposite directions?” asked the author Elizabeth Kolbert in an essay for the New Yorker. “This is the key question raised by the report, and it may turn out to be the key question of the century.”