Of Whales and Balloons

Saturday, November 01, 1997
Every year research stations in Antarctica launch more than 9,000 balloons, ranging in size from small weather balloons six feet in diameter to enormous, telescope-lofting gas bladders large enough to contain three jumbo jets nose to tail. As the balloons rise, the helium inside them expands and eventually bursts the balloons, or the gas escapes after the balloons release their instruments. Their plastic skins--neoprene or polyethylene--drift back to Earth, landing on the ice sheet or in the surrounding oceans. No one retrieves the tons of plastic that land each year in the sea. And that, says ecologist Gerald Eddlemon, may be bad for the blue whales, humpbacks, sperm whales, and right whales that cruise those waters.

Eddlemon, who works at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, wanted to know what effect such wholesale ocean dumping of plastics has on whale populations around the continent. But direct research in the stormy southern seas is an arduous task. The Southern Ocean is enormous--about 11 million square miles--and of course the conditions down there are pretty atrocious, he says. You might have to do years of prowling around to find whales and balloons at the same time. And if a whale is harmed and dies, it will probably sink and you’d never know. Instead Eddlemon chose to approach the problem by using a mathematical model.

The number of blue whales that visit the Antarctic during the austral summer to feed on small, shrimplike krill is estimated at between 1,000 and 10,000. Over a span of ten years, up to 100,000 balloons--which may persist in the environment for 400 years--may land on their feeding grounds. In the worst-case scenario, Eddlemon’s model predicts that each whale will encounter ten balloons every 20 years. If 10,000 blue whales exist, that’s 100,000 encounters. And if only 1 percent of the encounters result in death or harm from swallowing a balloon, that’s 1,000 dead or injured blue whales--not to mention all the other whale species in the Antarctic.

Unfortunately, ridding the Antarctic atmosphere of balloons is not an option. Airplanes could make some of the same meteorologic and astronomical observations, but they pollute the air while balloons don’t, and balloons can rise much higher than planes. Instead Eddlemon suggests replacing the plastics with materials that break down in salt water--or at least removing the chemicals that prevent the balloons from degrading.
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