INACCESSIBLE ISLAND is well named. It is an uninhabited rock in the South Atlantic ocean that belongs to Tristan da Cunha, a British dependency which itself vies with Easter Island for the honour of being the most remote inhabited place on the planet. Go there, though, and you will find its coast is covered with litter.
That, at least, has been the experience of Peter Ryan of the University of Cape Town, in South Africa. Since 1984 Dr Ryan, an ornithologist, has been visiting Inaccessible and, along with his other studies, recording the litter stranded on the island’s beaches. This week, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, he has published the results.
Though Inaccessible is indeed remote, being near the South Atlantic’s midpoint, the nature of oceanic circulation means that this is exactly the sort of place where floating rubbish tends to accumulate—at the centre of whirlpools thousands of kilometres across, called gyres. Dr Ryan’s particular interest was where all the litter came from before it was swept into the gyre. And he found that this has changed a lot over the decades he has been visiting the island.