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Researchers Say One Of The Last Pristine Places On Earth Is Now Officially Polluted
October 2, 2012
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Okay, pop quiz. Is there anywhere on the planet that we haven't polluted? We'll give you a second to think about it.

What's that? The Southern Ocean near Antarctica. Excellent answer, and you would've been right - until now.

That's right - researchers have found the first traces of plastic debris in the Southern Ocean - which was always thought to be pristine.

"The fact that we found these plastics is a sign that the reach of human beings is truly planetary in scale," said Chris Bowler, scientific co-ordinator of Tara Oceans.

Bowler was part of a team of scientists who travelled the world for two-and-a-half years on board a French research ship named 'Tara', studying the Atlantic, Pacific, Indian and Antarctic oceans.

As part of their research, they took samples from four different locations in the Southern Ocean and Antarctica and found traces of plastic at a measure of 50,000 fragments per square kilometre. That's a rate comparable to the global average - which isn't good.

The scientists were expecting the rates in the Southern Ocean to be 10 times lower than the global average.

Bowler says the fragments come from plastic bottles and bags, that have ended up in the ocean and disintegrated over the years. His team also found synthetic fibres from clothing, which likely originated from washing-machine residue.

It's believed much of the waste drifted there from Africa, South America or Australia. The problem is, plastic slowly releases toxins that can end up in the ocean food chain.

"It's too late to do much about what's already out there at this stage, as this stuff is going to hang around for thousands of years," Bowler said.

Next year, the researchers plan to go to the Arctic circle to study the ocean there, especially as the sea ice keeps melting.

Now, if all of that isn't troubling enough, how about this? A new study says the world's largest coral reef is disappearing faster than ever.

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Researchers from the Australian Institute of Marine Science say Australia's Great Barrier Reef has lost more than half its coral cover in just over 25 years.

Between 1985 and 2012, the coral cover fell from 28 per cent to 13.8 per cent. And they say it could drop to as low as 5 per cent within the next 10 years.

"In terms of geographic scale and the extent of the decline, it is unprecedented anywhere in the world," AIMS chief John Gunn told Reuters.

The researchers say storms, and an abundance of starfish that feed on coral are a big part of the problem. Another key factor is coral bleaching, which according to scientists, is linked to the warming of the ocean due to climate change and rising acid levels.

"This loss of over half of initial cover is of great concern, signifying habitat loss for the tens of thousands of species associated with tropical coral reefs," the study says.

Researchers analysed data from more than 200 individual reefs. They say the coral can recover but that can take 10-20 years, provided there isn't any more damage.

The study says the water quality in the region has to be improved, especially in rivers flowing into the reef area. They say that would help control outbreaks of starfish.

It also calls for bigger cuts to greenhouse gas emissions. The Australian government is doing a major review of the coral reef, to try to find better ways to protect it.

Australia's Great Barrier Reef is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

On a related note, a group called the TerraMar project (a coalition of NGOs, scientists, and activists) officially launched their second phase earlier today. The group is trying to raise awareness of how important our oceans are by connecting people more closely with the aquatic ecosystem.

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TerraMar wants to reframe international waters, which are under no nation's jurisdiction, as a country that we are all citizens of by default.

To that end, their website offers free passports to anyone who wants to get involved. Their first goal is to get one million people signed up as citizens.

The Project is also developing a huge database of all ocean life, so individuals can become Ambassadors for the species of their choice. You can read more about it here.

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