Friday, December 10, 2010

The laws governing the world's largest dump - an introduction

Can you guess what it is? It is 139 million square miles in size...

Fluids have taken up a significant portion of my life, and I am not sad about that fact. Fluids are beautiful (example 1, 2). We breath fluids, drink them and use the word as an adjective of praise and beauty. I want to talk a little bit about one essential fluid of our Earth, water, which comprises the hydrosphere. In particular, I will focus on oceans and the seas.

The fundamental property of fluids, i.e. flow, is something that our society has been taking advantage of for a long time now. We can dump things into a large fluid body, knowing all well that pressure gradients driven by energy received from the sun will cause motion to that body, and effortlessly carry away whatever it is we dump into it. It comes as no surprise then that the atmosphere and air (another essential fluid) and the oceans and seas have been violated, and are continuing to be violated through reckless behaviour.

You may have heard about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which I have mentioned previously (here, here, here). Ocean gyres have basically been concentrating trash either dumped into the ocean, or through carelessness has ended there over decades. The boundaries of these gyres are far removed from the pretty beaches and coasts of island nations and those with coasts...although trash does wash ashore (Unfortunately, no major nation can exist in the middle of a gyre. If the Midway Islands were a major nation, I am sure people would be up in arms about trash washing up on the nation's shores). Regardless, according to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, a country's responsibility, or conversely, the area of sea that is under the country's responsibility extends out 24 nautical miles (12 nautical miles of territorial water, 12 nautical miles of contiguous zone). It is only within these 24 nautical miles that a country can enforce regulations regarding taxation and pollution. Beyond this region, is the high seas, water under no one's responsibility or legal reach. This has proven to be very convenient for nations under the International Maritime Organisation, the UN body that oversees the world's shipping, to avoid much responsibility of their actions over the high seas. Who do you assign blame for marine degradation to? The country where the ship was docked? The country of destination? The country the ship was registered in? But wait, there were citizens of twelve nationalities on board. Also, the marine harm happened over the high seas...

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