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Bridge of the MV Ushuaia, Homeward Bound Expedition, December 2 - 21, 2016. Photo: Carol Devine

Antarctic Sea: Women in Science and Leadership Expedition, Marine Debris and Ocean Love

Open bridge policies on ships are the best.

In December 2016 I was in the Antarctic on the MV Ushuaia, a former oceanographic research vessel operated by US agency National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), with 75 other female scientists. We were the largest-all female Antarctic expedition ever, part of the inaugural Homeward Bound initiative, a 10-year project to elevate the impact of women in science and leadership to address pressing contemporary issues. Antarctica was our backdrop, as well as our climate change classroom. Filmed Faculty on Homeward Bound included Her Deepness aquanaut and marine biologist Sylvia Earle, Jane Goodall, British primatologist, ethologist, anthropologist, and UN Messenger of Peace, Christina Figures leader on global climate change and former Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) 2010-2016.

HOMEWARD BOUND FILMED FACULTY

Iceberg Parade, Antarctic peninsula. Photo: Carol Devine

Iceberg Parade, Antarctic peninsula. Photo: Carol Devine

 

Chrysalis SciArt with air temperature and the Beauford Wind Scale. Photo: Carol Devine

Chrysalis SciArt with air temperature, Beauford Wind Scale, a bestiary, and personal symbols. Brett Foster photographer and Homeward Bound 2016 artists, Carol Devine curator.

 

At any given time, especially since it was the austral summer and the sun barely set, there would be a few of us on the bridge alongside the mainly Argentinean crew. There we witnessed the sailors’ skilled navigation of seasonal sea ice, heard the beeping meteorological data coming in and soaked in magical views of minke whale pods and iceberg parades.

The music on the bridge was invariably rock or pop, or some stunning classical piece that seemed to fit the mood of the weather – sunny, foggy or wind of Beauford Scale 10. Another sound on the bridge was a super loud beeping sound. At first I worried we’d hit an iceberg, but the Captain assured us it was the “Krill alarm”, signaling that we were near krill swarms, the major link in the food chain. The Southern Ocean, or Antarctic Ocean is crucial body of water for our planet as it stores anthropogenic heat and carbon dioxide and helps regulates global atmospheric temperatures.

On this trip I was keen to learn more about the state of the earth and science and leadership from my fellow scientists from a dozen countries and the program’s faculty- including marine biologists, an astronomer, a mathematician, a glaciologist, a neuroscientist and social scientists like me. We had onboard faculty with leadership and terrestrial ecology backgrounds for example, and amazing “filmed” faculty with messages for us from primatologist Jane Goodall, aquanaut and oceanographer Sylvia Earle and diplomat Christina Figueres, former Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. We also had the fortune to visit scientists and staff the Argentinian research station Carlini, and US Palmer Station as well as Port Lockroy, the historic 1944 UK base. We explored the fact that many women are already leading scientists and changemakers but that there are also unconscious and conscious biases preventing or deterring women in STEM leadership. UNESCO reports that only 28% of researchers globally are women. Evidence tells us too that gender-balanced teams are renowned for better performance and decision making.

Bridge of the MV Ushuaia, Homeward Bound Expedition, December 2 - 21, 2016. Photo: Carol Devine

Bridge of the MV Ushuaia, Homeward Bound Expedition, December 2 – 21, 2016. Photo: Carol Devine

On this 20-day program at sea I was keen also was keeping an eye out for marine debris. I’d collected garbage in the Antarctic twenty years earlier. I saw living on a Russian Research station decades ago, and on this trip in visits to three research stations, that individuals and groups in the Antarctic, be it governments, scientists or tourists, must act responsibly. We must think about what we goods we bring and dispose of there (and everywhere), including the risk of bringing invasive species to Antarctica on ships, planes and on shoes, materials and equipment.

I also helped clean up garbage in the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, where its Governor initiated clean ups of this northernmost inhabited place on earth where garbage collects on extremely remote fjords and shores. I collected a survey of the marine debris we found on Svalbard’s shores and documented in an exhibit Aqua Mess with portraits of the trash and landscapes where we found it.

Aqua Mess: Portraits of garbage at the top of the earth – Clean It! From Clean Up Svalbard 2016. Photo: Carol Devine

From the series Aquamess, portraits of garbage collected in Svalbard, Norway in the high Arctic during “Clean Up Svalbard” 2014. Photo: Carol Devine

In the Antarctic I didn’t see a lot of marine debris compared to the Arctic, but when we did it stood out as a shock of colour against mostly muted earth tones in the moss and rocks, on top of endless blue-white glacier vistas.

I collected ten pieces of trash on our shore landings, from small bits of multi-colour plastic rope to a big green pop bottle. Again, this may be the tip of the iceberg of Antarctica’s human-created pollution, even traces in its deep ocean floors. Study results from August 2016 on human contaminants in ocean trenches are eerie. In shrimp-like crustaceans called amphipods, scientists found human-made organic pollutants at some 10,000 metres deep. We’re still learning about the volume, location and impact of marine debris from the Antarctic to the Arctic and in between. But we do know it’s prolific and harmful to wildlife and to organisms and us too when it breaks down and enters the food chain. It’s choking the oceans. Some estimates suggest plastics may make up 50-80% of ocean litter.

The Aqua Mess display as it is in the #SciTechHiddenWorlds exhibition of the new Canada Science and Technology Museum. Photo: M. Labrecque

“Aquamess” is now displayed in the new Canada Science and Technology Museum’s #SciTechHiddenWorlds exhibition.

In Antarctica studies on marine trash began in 2007/8 by The British Antarctic Survey and Greenpeace. While big pieces of plastic were not found, plastic was discovered in remote places and seas. In 2012 scientists on the French schooner the Tara found a disturbingly high amount of trash in Antarctica. While we were in Antarctica another ship was doing a formal survey again said one of our faculty, terrestrial ecologist Dr. Justine Shaw told us.

We live in uncertain yet also hopeful times. Antarctic history gives us fantastic examples wisdom on the value of international cooperation, science and innovation, which were also values we discussed on our recent expedition and ones we commit to live and disseminate following the voyage.

The Antarctic Treaty of 1959, created remarkably during the cold war, and its Environmental Protocol of 1991, dedicates the continent to peace and science, celebrates its aesthetic beauty and outlines our responsibility to conserve Antarctic biodiversity and ecology. In our pursuit to protect limited resources, reduce and clean up our human footprint on land and oceans, and work towards better equity for fellow humans around the globe, the poles are bellwethers, mirrors and also inspirations.

Carol Devine is a social scientist from Toronto who specializes in global and earth health, and one of 76 participants on Homeward Bound Women in Science and Leadership Expedition Antarctica 2016. Carol is a member of Society of Women Geographers and The Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research’s Social Sciences Expert Group.

Carol Devine is a social scientist from Toronto who specializes in global and earth health, and one of 76 participants on Homeward Bound Women in Science and Leadership Expedition Antarctica 2016. Carol is a member of Society of Women Geographers and The Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research’s Social Sciences Expert Group.

philco dial_SW

Unstable Plastics: Preservation Challenges in Museum Collections

Plastics are so much a part of our lives that we don’t even think about them except when we check for the recyclable symbol. Plastics in museums (Figure 1), however, deserve much more attention as they present significant and constant collecting and preservation challenges.

Figure 1. The Temperature Control (TC) room in one of the Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation storage facilities provides constant and cool storage conditions for many small objects made of early plastics.

Figure 1. The Temperature Control (TC) room in one of the Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation storage facilities provides constant and cool storage conditions for many small objects made of early plastics.

The first synthetic plastic was patented in 1865, meaning that plastics are 150 years old this year. We collect plastic artifacts not as examples of the plastics themselves, but as part of a collection of technological and social history objects significant to Canadians (Figure 2). One of the earliest plastics was rubber, and it is not hard to imagine the amount of rubber in a collection of technological history….. tires, tubes, gaskets, seals, floor mats, fabrics, wires, elastics….everywhere.

Figure 1. (A) Embrittlement caused by degraded cellulose acetate is clearly visible in this car knob from a 1948 Chrysler Town and Country car. (B) The degraded cellulose nitrate is visible on the mouthpiece of this tobacco pipe. (C) Degraded ebonite on a 19th century stethoscope. (D) Signs of degradation due to exposure to oxygen and light, on the rubber of this WW1 gas mask.

Figure 2. (A) Embrittlement caused by degraded cellulose acetate is clearly visible in this car knob from a 1948 Chrysler Town and Country car. (B) The degraded cellulose nitrate is visible on the mouthpiece of this tobacco pipe. (C) Degraded ebonite on a 19th century stethoscope. (D) Signs of degradation due to exposure to oxygen and light, on the rubber of this WW1 gas mask.

 

The preservation of plastics is a growing concern in the field of Conservation due to the instability of some types. There is much study being done in Europe, mostly related to plastic in works of art and decorative objects. PoPArt, the Preservation Of Plastic ARTefacts in museum collections is a good example. There is far less being done for plastics in collections of technology, which is worrying for us. The Canadian Association for Conservation of Cultural Property sponsored a workshop in 2010, that brought together some of Canada’s leading experts including Scott Williams and Julia Fenn. This workshop focused on plastics in the collection of the Canada Science and Technology Museum Corporation.

 

“The preservation of plastics is a growing concern in the field of Conservation due to the instability of some types”.

Why do we worry about plastics in our collection? Because we find them everywhere. They were arguably the material that most affected the electrification of the world: allowing for the production of cables (transatlantic cable 1854 to 1858, and again 1865-66), insulating materials, and moulded shapes for consumer products such as telephone receivers (Figure 3). In our transportation collection, we have plenty of rubber tires, and we also find plastic steering wheels, knobs, safety glass (which has a plastic layer sandwiched between glass), moulded dash and interior panels and fittings, and vinyl upholstery.   Aircraft contain a similar range of plastics materials; it being one of the great technological advancements between World War I and II that allowed for the huge innovations in aircraft construction between the Wars. From a design perspective, plastics, and the ability to mould complex shapes; permitted the creation of iconic decorative objects from the 20th Century, including radios, lamps, telephones, furniture and fashion accessories.

 

Figure 2. (A) The moulded shapes and colour effects of urea formaldehyde plastic are clearly visible on this Philco rotary dial. (B) A sample of an early marine telegraph cable, made of gutta percha, which is actually remarkably stable.

Figure 3. (A) The moulded shapes and colour effects of urea formaldehyde plastic are clearly visible on this Philco rotary dial. (B) A sample of an early marine telegraph cable, made of gutta percha, which is actually remarkably stable.

 

“Plastics are a fascinating class of material; and we owe a great deal to the early pioneers of chemistry,  whose achievements have allowed for the ubiquitous presence of this material in our lives today”.

 

There are some plastics that we know won’t last, such as rubber and PVC; but we do have strategies for prolonging their life expectancy. Some need to be stored in the dark, some in cold temperatures, and some in an oxygen-free environment. Some need all three. Private collectors should be aware of the type of plastic they have, so that they can care for it properly. Bakelite is one of the most stable plastics, and fortunately the majority of decorative items to be found at Antiques sales, are of this material.   Cellulose nitrate, on the other hand, also used to make decorative items; is inherently unstable.   Collectors should know this and take special care of it.

 

Figure 4.

Figure 4. Embrittlement

 

 

What does plastic deterioration look like? It can take the form of embrittlement (Figure 4), surface changes, stickiness, or a change of colour. Some (like cellulose nitrate) release an invisible gas which in the presence of moisture, can form acid on adjacent surfaces. This will cause organics to disintegrate, and metals to corrode. Cellulose nitrate buttons on an old gown, for instance, will eventually result in holes in the fabric, and corrosion of any metal decoration or button shanks. They should therefore be removed and stored separately, even if it breaks your heart to do so.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Conservation and Collection Services Division is responsible for the long-term care, preservation, and housing of the National Collection for the Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation.