What Happens to Shipping Containers Lost at Sea?
Ninety percent of the world’s trade is done with shipping containers, and approximately 10,000 fall into the sea every year, which is about one lost per hour. A study in 2017 indicated that this number has dropped to about 1,582, the bulk of which are lost in natural disasters. About 64 percent of the containers that have been lost in the last decade have been from natural disasters.
This has led to some interesting things being washed ashore and has given scientists some unique opportunities to study the oceans. But aside from these few scientific breakthroughs, what happens to the majority of the containers that fall overboard?
Many of the containers will float for a time, sometimes taking up to two months to disappear into the waters; a refrigerated container may float for longer, but it will eventually sink too. The thousands of containers that have been lost are creating little “highways of trash” along the shipping routes in the oceans. They are certainly impacting marine life and forming new habitats along the seabed, and scientists do not yet know what kind of effect this will have on our oceans.
It is currently unknown what will happen if the ocean floor becomes completely “paved” in shipping containers. “They could even provide steppingstones for invasive species that go from one coastal harbor to another,” Andrew DeVogelaere, a biologist at the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, said.
In 2004, the Med Taipei was leaving the Port of Oakland during a storm and lost 15 containers in the bay. Just four months later, scientists were surveying the ocean floor in the area with an underwater robot, and they uncovered one of the missing containers, which had contained 1,159 steel-belted car tires when it sunk.
The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary took this container as an opportunity to study the impacts of pollution in the deep sea, after finding an entire artificial reef had moved into the container. They found that the positioning of the container had altered the tides in the area and this had attracted predators, lowering the diversity of sea life around the container.
“Although the effects of one container may seem small, the thousands of shipping containers lost on the seafloor each year could eventually become a significant source of pollution for deep-sea ecosystems,” Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary researcher Josi Taylor said.
In 1992, a container holding 29,000 plastic bath toys, including rubber ducks, fell overboard and the toys began washing up on the shores of countries all over the world. The ducks were tracked by oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer, and their travels helped him map the currents of our oceans.
These ducks helped revolutionize our understandings of the ocean currents, and they granted some insight into plastic pollution. There are still at least 2,000 ducks floating around the ocean, stuck in the North Pacific Gyre, a vortex of currents that they helped identify.