URI’s Graduate School of Oceanography to present ocean pollution lecture Tuesday, Jan. 24

KINGSTON, R.I. – Jan. 23, 2023 – University of Rhode Island Professors J.P. Walsh and Rainer Lohmann will present “Confronting Ocean Pollution” at the URI Narragansett Bay Campus’ Coastal Institute Auditorium on Tuesday, Jan. 24.

A reception at 5:30 p.m. and the lecture at 6, are free and open to the public. Guests are asked to register for the event. For those unable to attend in person, a livestream of the lecture will begin at 6 p.m.

The discussion by the two oceanography professors will be the first in the new GSO Public Lecture Series. “Every time you go to the beach, you see debris or other types of trash,” Walsh said. “I think people are really concerned about what’s happening to coastal areas.”

Lohmann said the University welcomes URI community members and area residents.

“Our primary goal is reaching beyond. There’s a lot of interest in the ocean and human impact on it,” Lohman said. “There’s a broad cross section, such as school-aged kids who have read about these problems and genuinely want to do something about it. Given the fact that the voters of Rhode Island decided to support the GSO, it’s important that we reach out to the wider state community. This lecture will be accessible to people who perhaps did not study science in college.”

Walsh’s work focuses on the presence of plastics in the ocean, both on a readily visible level and on a microscopic one. “People aren’t really compelled to act until they see the problem. I think the reality is that the more we highlight the issue, the more we’ll enable action.”

Lohmann agrees, pointing to the increasing regulations regarding single-use plastics as one sign of progress. “In some towns, they are already banning plastic bags and plastic straws. There are many things we can do without any major loss of convenience. There needs to be more common sense, particularly for those who enjoy the coast,” Lohman said.

That may be changing as more in the private sector push to recognize that many plastic products last far longer than the original use, Walsh said.

The pollutants Lohmann studies are more insidious. PFAs (per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances) are chemicals that have been used in everything from popcorn bags to carpets, even in pizza boxes. They’re sometimes called “forever chemicals,” since there is no effective, natural way for them to break down once they’re released into the environment. Today, they’re most frequently used in fire extinguishing equipment at airports and on military bases.

“These are chemicals that should only be used in cases that are really important to humanity,” Lohmann said. “Once they find their way into the ocean, they become diluted and nearly impossible to retrieve. That doesn’t mean they’re gone, however. Because they do not break down, they can enter the food chain, causing a cascading effect on the environment.”

Teaming up for the lecture was a natural choice because the two have been informally collaborating on proposal ideas regarding pollution problems and how to address them. “It’s a natural fit having us present together,” said Lohmann. “There will be something in the lecture for everyone.”

This story was written by Hugh Markey.