Dr Adam Porter – Marine Biologist – Shoulders of Giants
“Sometimes I find myself in a dry suit in Torquay, scraping barnacles off a rock wall, or in the lab measuring plastic bits, over and over again. But sometimes I find myself travelling to amazing places. Galapagos is one of them” – Dr Adam Porter
Imagine scuba diving along one of the seven natural wonders of the world; The Great Barrier Reef. Its breathtaking beauty stretches for 2,300 km, showcasing the world’s largest coral reef system with all the plants and fish that it supports. A few familiar items emerge, however, disturbing the tranquil beauty: a floating plastic bag, a bottle top or a plastic straw. Sadly, plastic pollution is one of the great societal challenges of the 21st century and the repercussions of our consumer culture are something that most of us are only just beginning to understand.
Fortunately, our remarkable planet is also filled with some incredible individuals; one such person I recently had the pleasure of interviewing. Introducing Dr Adam Porter who, having successfully completed his PhD at the University of Exeter recently, was able to spare an hour with us before heading off on his next great adventure.
Adam and the team at the University of Exeter are studying the impact that plastics have on our global oceans. Adam’s studies specifically focus on how plastic gets into the sea, how it is transported by both environmental drivers like wind and water and also biological drivers. Things like marine snow – the detritus formed after plants or animals have died, which stick together and sink to the ocean floor. The ‘snow’ resembles white fluffy balls around 5mm in size. It provides food for many deep-sea creatures as it heads downwards towards the ocean floor and is part of the ‘biological pump’ that keeps life on Earth ticking over and, importantly, sends carbon to the deep sea to be locked away from the atmosphere. Adam and the team have been looking at whether marine snow also transports plastic from the surface to the seafloor and have published this work in a leading academic journal.
In addition, Adam has carried out experiments with sea urchins to find out whether they can break up plastics, from big pieces into smaller bits. He spent around twenty days at sea, sailing from Falmouth to the Azores and then on to the Canary Islands, collecting samples of sea water to try to establish how much plastic is out there, where it’s accumulating and what impact that might be having on marine life.
I asked Adam how conclusive his studies were, and he responded that ‘each chapter had told an interesting story’ and that’s very important in opening up avenues for more work in the future.
“We have a lot of questions still unanswered but I think that what we’ve already published – we try to publish our science so it’s useful to the world – is useful, and has certainly helped inform our decisions, even up to a government level, as to solutions for the plastic pollution problem and where we go in the future.”
A LOVE OF THE SEA
Adam started out his studies at Cardiff University with an undergraduate degree in marine geography; the fact that he loves the outdoors and being close to the sea meant that his study choice was a perfect fit for him. He loves nature and is also a keen photographer; in fact, many of the photos accompanying this article were taken by him.
After graduating from Cardiff University, and at a bit of a loose end, Adam interned for a year at his local church in Cardiff before joining Professor Rupert Ormond (a tropical marine ecologist) on a research expedition. The pair travelled to Saudi Arabia for six months, where they worked on a coral reef health monitoring project. The experience encouraged and pushed Adam to pursue his studies and apply to start his PhD.
Adam chose to study plastics as he is interested in how humankind and the way we live, interacts with the environment and what impact that has, whether positive or negative. Adam says,
“Mankind can do great good for the environment as well as great harm”.
He had previously worked on the impacts of the Sea Empress oil spill for his Master’s Thesis, then the impacts of coastal construction on Saudi Arabian coral reefs, so studying the effects that plastic has on the planet seemed to fit his skill set and was a relatively new frontier for science.
Public perception has changed drastically with regards to plastic in the years that Adam has worked towards his PhD, with the media ‘whipping up a frenzy’ around the subject and many people raising awareness too. He says it has been a ‘fascinating melting pot’ of academic research but also public engagement. People want to do something about it.
As to whether we have ‘demonised’ plastic, Adam made a good point: he said that rather than a ‘war on plastic’ which was one of the headlines in the media, a more nuanced piece was published by the BBC saying rather let’s ‘wage war on plastic waste’. Adam says that’s the key. Plastic plays a pivotal role in society today, with great fuel savings in the way an aircraft is made, for example: if we built aircraft out of metal, the amount of fuel used would be astronomical compared to using plastic components.
“The same with carbon fibre, all these components reduce the weight of transport, and are actually vital in saving our planet,”
“Plastics is one problem, but we also have climate change, ocean acidification – linked to that is the bleaching of the world’s coral reefs.”
In terms of whether plastic has been blown out of proportion, he says we have to be realistic. Plastic is a wonderful invention but it’s the everyday items, like plastic bags and plastic straws, the plastic spoon in a plastic packed salad; the single-use plastics that are the problem. Adam says,
“I’ve seen an orange that’s been peeled then sat on a polystyrene tray and wrapped in cling film – nature gave it a skin, we don’t need that plastic.”
He says that’s where human laziness has overtaken common sense and created an environmental problem. He added,
“When we value not having to peel our orange more than the complete waste of the world’s resources and the desecration of the environment, something has gone horribly wrong.”
Adam went on to say that the world’s resources are finite and we do have to be careful to find the balance. Not all vegetables in the supermarket have to be wrapped in plastic, however, a cucumber lasts longer if wrapped in plastic. If we were to take it out of the plastic, it would mean that its shelf life is reduced, which he says,
“Probably means we’d have to grow more cucumbers, which means we’d need more space to grow those cucumbers, which probably means we’d have to chop down some forest, use more fertiliser, pesticides, and so it goes on.”
The mind boggles.
Of course, there are things that we can all do to help – a reusable water bottle or coffee cup, reusable shopping bags (the plastic bag tax in the UK has been fantastic and has reduced plastic bag use by 95% in Wales). In October 2018, the government also set out its plan to ban or restrict the distribution and sale of plastic straws, drink stirrers and cotton buds.
TREADING A PATH
When Adam and his team travelled to the Galapagos Islands, they were hoping that due to the winds and currents, the islands would be fairly separated from most of the world’s land mass. They hoped that the site would be pristine, that no plastic would have reached there. They flew out with a multi-national team, who worked hand in hand with the local people to investigate the plastics issue. They really wanted to build capacity for the future and make sure that when they left, that research could continue and that they left a legacy: to tread a path so that people behind them could continue walking it.
After holding a week of workshops which involved local and national governments, schools and scientists from Ecuador and South America, as well as from five institutions in the UK, they were able to enjoy three fantastic weeks of science. Adam says there was plastic out there but it’s an amazing place, it’s beautiful and the wildlife is awesome and unique.
Some of the high points of Adam’s research journey and what he’s thankful for are all the different people he’s met, and the many things he has experienced along the way. He says,
“Working with people and meeting new people is one of the best things I get to do: when adventure and people and science all intersect; it makes the job.”
He is passionate about legacy and community, so being able to share the team’s plastics research over Skype with schools around the world is very rewarding. The University of Exeter is privileged to have a link with Digital Explorers who create free resources for schools especially dealing with climate change and their plastics work. They are freely available to schools across the world and can be downloaded to help teach science.
SCIENCE AND FAITH
Adam also finds time to serve at his local church here in Exeter, where his love of community spills over into his faith. He says,
“My faith and the church give me a purpose in life; as a church we are a group of people who are trying to live in relationship with each other and with the God that we believe in. A big part of my faith is in restoring things to how they should be, whether that’s community or the environment; the legacy I want to leave is having made the world a little better than how I found it.”
On those who have inspired him, Adam says he will continue to
“Stand on the shoulders of giants”
He was referring to those who have gone before him, especially at the University of Exeter. People like Dr Ceri Lewis and Tamara Galloway, whose plastic studies have led to a government ban on microbeads and have been reported to the UN and international panels on plastic pollution and climate change. He says there are rarely any new ideas in the world and that you hope to build a little bit more on what others have achieved in the past.
Adam hopes to continue at the University of Exeter with his research into plastic pollution in the coming years and we, at Grow, wish him the very best and are thankful that we have such dedicated and passionate people taking care of our planet.
Written by Stella Nicholls
Photography by (or provided by) Dr Adam Porter