Monday, June 20, 2022


Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Pollution, Earth & Space Science, Earth Systems, Sustainability

Ed Hessler

Things have been tumbling off boats into the ocean for as long as humans have been a seafaring species, which is to say, at least ten thousand and possibly more than a hundred thousand years.--Kathryn Schulz, The New Yorker, June 6 2022

Today things tumble-off in large shipping containers (or sink with the ship),and these are the focus of Shulz 's reporting for The New Yorker, June 6, 2022. As she so elegantly puts it, "The shipping container is a lesson in the uncontainable nature of modern life."  I hope the bits that follow motivate you to read her full column.

--"6000 container ships are...on the ocean at any given moment." The scale stretches the imagination. Some ships carry "more than 20000" and given a variety of factors such as human failure, heavy seas, and storms," some are likely to go overboard " That number is increasing because storms and high winds are increasing due to climate-inducing volatility of the atmosphere.

--There is a field guide to containers--"The Container Guide," by Craig Cannon and Tim Hwang; "the John Audubons of shipping containers."

--Containers were developed by trucking company owner, Malcom McLean and marked the end of employment for longshoremen and stevedores (two quite different jobs). "These days, a computer does the work of figuring out how to pack a ship, and a trolley-an-crane systems removes an inbound container and replaces it with an outbound one roughly every ninety seconds, unloading and reloading the ship almost simultaneously."

--At the small end of the scale of container vessels are the 400-footers; at the highest end are the 1300-footers. "The stacks begin down in the hold, and above-board they can run as wide as twenty three abreast and loom as tall as a ten-story building. While there is a UN plan to report losses, it has not been put into action yet.
--Crews are at a different scale. The largest container ships - Ultra large Container Vessel - "can travel from Hong Kong to California carrying twenty-thousand containers and just twenty-five people."

--The economics makes this side of the business of transporting inexpensive and details are provided. I didn't know that when one goes overboard "an arcane bit of maritime law - general average adjustment - according to which everyone with cargo aboard (that ship) must help pay for all related expenses." It was codified in 533 ACE and makes sense.

--So what's in 'em? Think darn near everything and Schulz's list is staggering in its diversity. What "they have in common is that, collectively, they make plain the scale of our excess consumption." And because there are so many, inspection "is essentially impossible...a boon to drug cartels, human traffickers, and terrorists, a nightmare for the rest of us." *

--Scientists have used the well-known Nike shoe loss incident that led to the development of a research field  known as "flotsametrics--the study of ocean currents based on the drift patterns of objects that go overboard." The shoes are long-distance floaters and "will float pretty much until they run out of ocean--although, since the two shoes in a pair orient differently in the wind, one beach might be strewn with right sneakers while another is covered in left ones."
--Schulz closes with the discovery of plastic bags by beachcombers and walkers that were lost in a container failure: "a million plastic bags, headed for a supermarket chain in Ireland, bearing the words 'Help protect the environment.'"

* The only account I've ever read of this side of dock life is the first chapter in Gomorrah by Roberto Saviano (Picador 2006) whose description of that underbelly is graphic and eye-opening. It is the stuff of nightmares. A world unimaginable and certainly unknown to most of us.. The setting is the Port of Naples, Italy. No romance.


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