Visualizing the Prolific Plastic Problem in Our Oceans
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Visualizing the Prolific Plastic Problem in Our Oceans

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In February of 2018, a dead sperm whale washed up on along the picturesque shoreline of Cabo de Palos in Spain.

Officials noted that the whale was unusually thin, and a necropsy confirmed that the whale died from an acute abdominal infection. Put simply, the whale ingested so much plastic debris – 67 lbs worth – that its digestive system ruptured.

The Plastic Problem, Visualized

Today’s infographic comes to us from Custom Made, and it helps put the growing marine debris problem in perspective.

The Pacific's Prolific Plastic Problem

A Spiraling Problem

The equivalent of one garbage truck full of plastic enters the sea every minute and the volume of ocean plastic is expected to triple within a decade.

Every stray bit of trash that enters the ocean, from a frayed fishing net off the coast of the Philippines to a plastic bottle cap from an Oakland storm drain, all end up circulating in rotating ocean currents called gyres.

For this reason, the Pacific Gyre is now better known by another name: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

The Sum of Many Plastic Parts

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is often misrepresented online as a literal raft of floating trash stretching as far as the eye can see. The real situation is less visually dramatic, but it’s what we can’t see – microplastic – that’s the biggest problem. Tiny fragments of plastic pose the biggest risks to humans because it’s easy for them to enter the food chain after being ingested by marine life.

While derelict fishing gear such as nets and floats are a contributor to the problem, land-based activity accounts for the majority of the garbage circulating in the ocean. Most of the world’s countries have ocean coastlines, and with so many jurisdictions and varying degrees of environmental scrutiny, truly curbing the flow of plastic isn’t realistic in the near term.

No Solution on the Horizon

Garbage patches have formed deep in the middle of international waters, so there is no clear cut way to decide who is responsible for cleaning up the mess. Organizations like The Ocean Cleanup are researching ocean gyres and providing better insight into the extent of the plastic problem. The Ocean Cleanup is best positioned to make a real impact, though executing on their vision will require vast resources and substantial funding.

Nobody likes seeing whales wash up on shore, but for now, a fully-scaled solution may still far out on the horizon.

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Misc

A Deep Dive Into the World’s Oceans, Lakes, and Drill Holes

A unique and entertaining graphic that compares the depth of the world’s lakes and oceans, as well as the deepest holes ever drilled.

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Today’s chart is best viewed full-screen. Explore the high resolution version by clicking here.

Sailors have been circumnavigating the high seas for centuries now, but what could be found beneath the sunlit surface of the ocean remained a mystery until far more recently. In fact, it wasn’t until 1875, during the Challenger expedition, that humanity got it’s first concrete idea of how deep the ocean actually was.

Today’s graphic, another fantastic piece by xkcd, is a unique and entertaining look at everything from Lake Superior’s ice encrusted shoreline down to blackest, inhospitable trench (which today bears the name of the expedition that first discovered it).

The graphic is packed with detail, so we’ll only highlight a few points of interest.

Deep Thoughts with Lake Baikal

Deep in Siberia, abutting a mountainous stretch of the Mongolian border, is the one of the most remarkable bodies of water on Earth: Lake Baikal. There are a number of qualities that make Lake Baikal stand out.

Depth: Baikal, located in a massive continental rift, is the deepest lake in the world at 1,642m (5,387ft). That extreme depth holds a lot of fresh water. In fact, an estimated 22% of all the world’s fresh water can be found in the lake.

Age: Baikal (which is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site) is estimated to be over 25 million years old, making it the most ancient lake on the planet.

Clarity: Interestingly, the water in the lake is exceptionally clear. In winter, visibility can extend over 30m (98ft) below the surface.

Biodiversity: The unique ecosystem of Lake Baikal provides a home for thousands of plant and animal species. In fact, upwards of 80% of those species are endemic, meaning they are unique to that region.

Who is Alvin?

Since 1964, a hard-working research submersible named Alvin has been helping us better understand the deep ocean. Alvin explored the wreckage of RMS Titanic in 1986, and helped confirm the existence of black smokers (one of the weirdest ecosystems in the world).

Though most of the components of the vessel have been replaced and upgraded over the years, it’s still in use today. In 2020, Alvin received an $8 million upgrade, and is now capable of exploring 99% of the ocean floor.

We know more about the surface of Venus than the bottom of the ocean. The potential for discovery is huge.– Anna-Louise Reysenbach, Professor of Microbiology, PSU

The Ocean’s Deepest Point

The deepest point in the ocean is the Mariana Trench, at 11,034 meters (36,201 feet).

This trench is located in the Pacific Ocean, near Guam and the trench’s namesake, the Mariana Islands. While the trench is the most extreme example of ocean depths, when compared to surface level distance, it’s depth is shorter than Manhattan.

Mariana trench depth compared to cities

Obviously, the context of surface distance is wildly different than vertical distance, but it serves as a reminder of how narrow the “explorable” band of the Earth’s surface is.

Polymetallic Nodules

The ancient Greek word, ábyssos, roughly means “unfathomable, bottomless gulf”. While there is a bottom (the abyssopelagic zone comprises around 75% of the ocean floor), the enormous scale of this ecosystem is certainly unfathomable.

Objectively, the abyssal plain is not the prettiest part of the ocean. It’s nearly featureless, and lacks the panache of, say, a coral reef, but there are still some very compelling reasons we’re eager to explore it. Resource companies are chiefly interested in polymetallic nodules, which are essentially rich manganese formations scattered about on the sea bottom.

Manganese is already essential in steel production, but demand is also getting a substantial lift from the fast-growing electric vehicle market. The first company to find an economical way to harvest nodules from the ocean floor could reap a significant windfall.

Drill Baby, Drill

Demand for resources can force humans into some very inhospitable places, and in the case of Deepwater Horizon, we chased oil to a depth even surpassing the famed Marianas Trench.

Drilling that far below the surface is a complicated endeavor, and when the drill platform was put into service in 2001, it was hailed as an engineering marvel. To this day, Deepwater Horizon holds the record for the deepest offshore hole ever made.

After the rig’s infamous explosion and subsequent spill in 2010, that depth record for drilling may stand the test of time.

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Energy

Mapped: Solar Power by Country in 2021

In 2020, solar power saw its largest-ever annual capacity expansion at 127 gigawatts. Here’s a snapshot of solar power capacity by country.

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Solar Power by Country

Mapped: Solar Power by Country in 2021

This was originally posted on Elements. Sign up to the free mailing list to get beautiful visualizations on natural resource megatrends in your email every week.

The world is adopting renewable energy at an unprecedented pace, and solar power is the energy source leading the way.

Despite a 4.5% fall in global energy demand in 2020, renewable energy technologies showed promising progress. While the growth in renewables was strong across the board, solar power led from the front with 127 gigawatts installed in 2020, its largest-ever annual capacity expansion.

The above infographic uses data from the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) to map solar power capacity by country in 2021. This includes both solar photovoltaic (PV) and concentrated solar power capacity.

The Solar Power Leaderboard

From the Americas to Oceania, countries in virtually every continent (except Antarctica) added more solar to their mix last year. Here’s a snapshot of solar power capacity by country at the beginning of 2021:

CountryInstalled capacity, megawattsWatts* per capita% of world total
China 🇨🇳 254,35514735.6%
U.S. 🇺🇸 75,57223110.6%
Japan 🇯🇵 67,0004989.4%
Germany 🇩🇪 53,7835937.5%
India 🇮🇳 39,211325.5%
Italy 🇮🇹 21,6003453.0%
Australia 🇦🇺 17,6276372.5%
Vietnam 🇻🇳 16,504602.3%
South Korea 🇰🇷 14,5752172.0%
Spain 🇪🇸 14,0891862.0%
United Kingdom 🇬🇧 13,5632001.9%
France 🇫🇷 11,7331481.6%
Netherlands 🇳🇱 10,2133961.4%
Brazil 🇧🇷 7,881221.1%
Turkey 🇹🇷 6,668730.9%
South Africa 🇿🇦 5,990440.8%
Taiwan 🇹🇼 5,8171720.8%
Belgium 🇧🇪 5,6463940.8%
Mexico 🇲🇽 5,644350.8%
Ukraine 🇺🇦 5,3601140.8%
Poland 🇵🇱 3,936340.6%
Canada 🇨🇦 3,325880.5%
Greece 🇬🇷 3,2472580.5%
Chile 🇨🇱 3,2051420.4%
Switzerland 🇨🇭 3,1182950.4%
Thailand 🇹🇭 2,988430.4%
United Arab Emirates 🇦🇪 2,5391850.4%
Austria 🇦🇹 2,2201780.3%
Czech Republic 🇨🇿 2,0731940.3%
Hungary 🇭🇺 1,9531310.3%
Egypt 🇪🇬 1,694170.2%
Malaysia 🇲🇾 1,493280.2%
Israel 🇮🇱 1,4391340.2%
Russia 🇷🇺 1,42870.2%
Sweden 🇸🇪 1,417630.2%
Romania 🇷🇴 1,387710.2%
Jordan 🇯🇴 1,3591000.2%
Denmark 🇩🇰 1,3001860.2%
Bulgaria 🇧🇬 1,0731520.2%
Philippines 🇵🇭 1,04890.1%
Portugal 🇵🇹 1,025810.1%
Argentina 🇦🇷 764170.1%
Pakistan 🇵🇰 73760.1%
Morocco 🇲🇦 73460.1%
Slovakia 🇸🇰 593870.1%
Honduras 🇭🇳 514530.1%
Algeria 🇩🇿 448100.1%
El Salvador 🇸🇻 429660.1%
Iran 🇮🇷 41450.1%
Saudi Arabia 🇸🇦 409120.1%
Finland 🇫🇮 391390.1%
Dominican Republic 🇩🇴 370340.1%
Peru 🇵🇪 331100.05%
Singapore 🇸🇬 329450.05%
Bangladesh 🇧🇩 30120.04%
Slovenia 🇸🇮 2671280.04%
Uruguay 🇺🇾 256740.04%
Yemen 🇾🇪 25380.04%
Iraq 🇮🇶 21650.03%
Cambodia 🇰🇭 208120.03%
Cyprus 🇨🇾 2001470.03%
Panama 🇵🇦 198460.03%
Luxembourg 🇱🇺 1952440.03%
Malta 🇲🇹 1843120.03%
Indonesia 🇮🇩 17210.02%
Cuba 🇨🇺 163140.02%
Belarus 🇧🇾 159170.02%
Senegal 🇸🇳 15580.02%
Norway 🇳🇴 152170.02%
Lithuania 🇱🇹 148370.02%
Namibia 🇳🇦 145550.02%
New Zealand 🇳🇿 142290.02%
Estonia 🇪🇪 130980.02%
Bolivia 🇧🇴 120100.02%
Oman 🇴🇲 109210.02%
Colombia 🇨🇴 10720.01%
Kenya 🇰🇪 10620.01%
Guatemala 🇬🇹10160.01%
Croatia 🇭🇷 85170.01%
World total 🌎 713,97083100.0%

*1 megawatt = 1,000,000 watts.

China is the undisputed leader in solar installations, with over 35% of global capacity. What’s more, the country is showing no signs of slowing down. It has the world’s largest wind and solar project in the pipeline, which could add another 400,000MW to its clean energy capacity.

Following China from afar is the U.S., which recently surpassed 100,000MW of solar power capacity after installing another 50,000MW in the first three months of 2021. Annual solar growth in the U.S. has averaged an impressive 42% over the last decade. Policies like the solar investment tax credit, which offers a 26% tax credit on residential and commercial solar systems, have helped propel the industry forward.

Although Australia hosts a fraction of China’s solar capacity, it tops the per capita rankings due to its relatively low population of 26 million people. The Australian continent receives the highest amount of solar radiation of any continent, and over 30% of Australian households now have rooftop solar PV systems.

China: The Solar Champion

In 2020, President Xi Jinping stated that China aims to be carbon neutral by 2060, and the country is taking steps to get there.

China is a leader in the solar industry, and it seems to have cracked the code for the entire solar supply chain. In 2019, Chinese firms produced 66% of the world’s polysilicon, the initial building block of silicon-based photovoltaic (PV) panels. Furthermore, more than three-quarters of solar cells came from China, along with 72% of the world’s PV panels.

With that said, it’s no surprise that 5 of the world’s 10 largest solar parks are in China, and it will likely continue to build more as it transitions to carbon neutrality.

What’s Driving the Rush for Solar Power?

The energy transition is a major factor in the rise of renewables, but solar’s growth is partly due to how cheap it has become over time. Solar energy costs have fallen exponentially over the last decade, and it’s now the cheapest source of new energy generation.

Since 2010, the cost of solar power has seen a 85% decrease, down from $0.28 to $0.04 per kWh. According to MIT researchers, economies of scale have been the single-largest factor in continuing the cost decline for the last decade. In other words, as the world installed and made more solar panels, production became cheaper and more efficient.

This year, solar costs are rising due to supply chain issues, but the rise is likely to be temporary as bottlenecks resolve.

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