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Second Kon-Tiki voyage to map Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Inspired by Thor Heyerdahl's famous 1947 expedition, the Kon-Tiki II is set to explore the little-known southern edge of the vortex of floating debris.

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    This 2008 photo shows debris floating in Hanauma Bay, Hawaii.
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The fate of the Laysan albatross may rest with the voyage of the Kon-Tiki II and a group of YouTubers in Hawaii, who are teaming up to broadcast the effects of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Inspired by Thor Heyerdahl's 1947 expedition, the modern day Kon-Tiki II consists of dual balsa wood rafts. It is set to launch in November from Peru to Easter Island and back again, in what the voyage's organizers are calling "a melding of history, science, and public education (the likes of which has never been seen before)."

The Kon Tiki II rafts are about 55 feet long by 22 feet wide, equipped with solar panels to power communications gear, sonar, and a refrigerator for specimens.

Nearly seven decades ago, Dr. Heyerdahl and five colleagues sailed 8,000 kilometers across the Pacific Ocean in 101 days on a balsa-wood raft, named Kon-Tiki, to prove that South Americans in pre-Columbian times could have crossed the sea and settled Polynesian islands. Today, the proof being sought is that of the damage plastic refuse is doing to the world’s oceans and wildlife.

The Hawaiian islands are part of the trash vortex of Great Pacific Garbage Patch which stretches from the West Coast of North America to Japan. The patch is broken into the Western Garbage Patch, located near Japan, and the Eastern Garbage Patch, located between the American states of Hawaii and California. The Southern Pacific region of this vortex has gone largely unexplored until now.

“The cleanup of the Pacific is impossible without more data about how much microplastic and what type of microplastic is floating around there,” says Torgeir Sæverud Higraff, the expedition leader of Kon-Tiki II – which launches November 1st – in an interview. “We do a great effort to make these numbers available to the public so that correct action can take place.”

Wednesday, as part of the run-up to the new expedition’s November launch, a group of YouTubers will perform a #RoadToKontiki pollution collection effort on the secluded Hawaiian shoreline in South Point and broadcast the results on the plastic detritus that scientists say has become the scourge of some Pacific marine life.

Both Kon-Tiki II and the Hawaiian effort are sponsored by the Norwegian Web-browser maker Opera Software, whose chief technical officer, Håkon Wium Lie, will be aboard Kon-Tiki II. He will also lead the YouTubers Charles Trippy, Jackson Teeney, Matt Alford, Stevie Boebi, Justin Stuart, Ally Hills, and Danny Duncan, with the help of Global Activist and Survivalist Alison Teal, who starred in the Discovery Channel’s "Naked and Afraid."

“The sense of adventure is compelling for everybody in the crew,” says Mr. Lie in an interview. “The Peruvian Current has never before been mapped for plastic and molecular pollution. The balsawood rafts are perfect platforms to make people aware of this giant environmental problem.”

Mr. Lie adds, “During the trip we will be taking samples, measuring plastic concentration level in around the pacific garbage patch using sonar as well as collection, which will help in determining how this is currently affecting the ocean."

The expedition will take place in conjunction with the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris and Lie says, "We will upload data constantly to those at the Paris conference and to universities in Norway where they can slog through the data as we collect and draw conclusions while we are still aboard."

“Bandwidth will be very limited aboard the raft, as data is such a scarce resource during to the trip economizing usage will be key to maintain connectivity,” Lie explains. “That’s when Opera’s compression technology comes into play; with compression technology we will be able to share and receive more data within our limited range.”

Plastic comes from land runoff and beach pollution, mainly from Japan and the US West Coast, according to Old Dominion University Oceanography Professor Larry P. Atkinson, who is part of a global team of scientists taking part in the Climate Change and Sea Level Rise Initiative. It poses a threat to sea turtles and fish as well as to seabirds.

“There really is very little data available on the South Pacific Garbage Patch because since you can’t see it on satellite,” Professor Atkinson says in an interview. “You have to actually go out there and drag Neuston nets to collect the samples of the microplastics floating just beneath the surface.”

While Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" once warned sailors not to injure the albatross, this voyage may go a long way towards saving the birds researchers say are being grievously harmed by the plastic pollution along the birds’ trans-Pacific feeding corridors.

Atkinson adds, “In autopsies of albatross and turtles you see the amount of plastics in their gut. Kon-Tiki II might just get people to see what’s out there in the oceans. That would be more valuable than the data collection.”

“I mean, albatross are amazing. There are cases of them flying from New Zealand to Chile – that’s 6,000 miles,” Atkinson says. “This bird will fly to Japan – a thousand miles or more – to find a meal for its baby and we’re feeding it plastic. They just fill up with plastic that’s floating just below the surface.  We have got to keep this stuff out of the ocean.”

[Editor's note: An earlier version misstated the name of the location of the pollution collection effort in Hawaii.]

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