23 April 2018

Introduction IMAU newsletter April 2018

A Royal Meet-Up

Our research at IMAU has real-world implications. We investigate the fate of ice caps and glaciers. We measure the chemical make-up of our atmosphere. We model how the oceans currents and atmospheric winds change in a changing climate. And my group studies plastic litter.

Plastic litter is one of the most visible of our many environmental problems. Plastic is, perhaps because of its ubiquity on beaches, very much in the public attention. Not a week goes by that I am not approached by a media outlet, a non-governmental organisation, a charity or a government to provide background information about the fate and impact of plastic in our oceans.

I’ve spoken to the Japanese government, the UK House of Commons, members of the European Parliament and to more than 250 media outlets around the world. But last month, I had my most exciting meeting yet. I met with His Serene Highness Prince Albert II of Monaco, to discuss our work on plastic litter. The Monarch of one of the smallest states in Europe is a true champion of the ocean. Both in his role as Head of State as well as through his foundation, he gives the ocean a voice on the international stage.

His Serene Highness had invited me to brief him on marine plastic litter during a visit to Imperial College in London. I briefed him that we now find plastic litter almost everywhere: on beaches, in sea ice and at the deepest parts of our ocean floors. Biologists find traces of plastic in the guts of almost all marine organisms. But we don’t know how the plastic is distributed, and whose plastic ends up where. Without accurate information on the full distribution of plastic in the global ocean, we will not be able to fully assess its impact.

I am hopeful that His Serene Highness took in my briefing and that it informs him when he is next speaking at the UN, in Davos at the WEF or to global industry. If he does use my research findings, that would have more impact than I could ever have myself.

As a brand-new member of the IMAU newsletter team, I am writing this text from the 6th International Marine Debris Conference in San Diego, US. Focusing on the problem of marine litter, this conference is different from any other I’ve attended before. Perhaps only 10% of the 600 attendants are scientists. The rest are ministers and politicians, media, citizen-scientists and decision-makers from governmental and non-governmental organisations. This mix between science and society is inspirational and impactful.

While publishing our research in top journals is important, it’s clearly not enough. We need to make sure that our findings end up with the people who have the influence and can make the changes needed to save our climate and oceans. So we should make sure our research ends on their desks. Because most decision-makers don’t read scientific literature.

Erik van Sebille