James Cameron on Plastic Pollution: Our So-Called Civilization Is Using the Ocean as Its Toilet

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James Cameron, creator of the films Avatar and Titanic, is speaking out about the "horrific" presence of plastic waste throughout the oceans—right down to Earth's deepest spot, the Challenger Deep—and arguing that research attempts to combat the problem are "shamefully underfunded."

"Our so-called civilization is using the ocean as its toilet," he told Newsweek. "Unless this changes, and fast, ocean ecosystems are going to continue their rapid collapse."

In 2012, Cameron became the first person to reach the deepest part of the ocean on a solo dive. He arrived at the Challenger Deep—in the Pacific Ocean's Mariana Trench, about 200 miles southwest of Guam—and spent several hours there, mapping the region and taking photos and samples.

"As human beings, we're drawn to absolutes—the deepest, the highest, the coldest, the farthest," he explained about what drew him to the Challenger Deep. "My logical justification was if we could build a sub to go to the deepest place, it could dive anywhere, and open up the entire ocean to exploration. And as a storyteller and curious monkey, I just wanted to see what was there."

Cameron is one of just a handful of people who have been to the deepest point of the ocean. "I enabled as much science as I could on that expedition, but in the end, it was about going there in person, and bearing witness to the great mystery. Seeing it with my own eyes," he said.

Despite its extreme remoteness, plastic has been found littering the floor of the Mariana Trench. Earlier this year, the rich investor Victor Vescovo completed a dive to the Challenger Deep and found a plastic bag and candy wrappers. Microplastics—bits of plastic measuring less than 5 mm—have also been ingested by creatures living in the Mariana Trench. In research published in February, a team of scientists showed that 100 percent of animals sampled had plastic fibers in their digestive tract.

"Plastic waste in the ocean is horrific but is only the most prominent of our many deadly waste streams, which include carbon that's heating the atmosphere and making the ocean acidic, and the run-off nutrients from all the world's agriculture, which is causing anoxic dead zones the size of countries," Cameron said.

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James Cameron sits in a replica of the Deepsea Challenger submersible. The director said more ocean research is needed to understand these ecosystems. SAEED KHAN/AFP/Getty Images

The ramifications of plastic and other forms of pollution are not entirely understood.

Earlier this year, the World Health Organization called for more research into the health and environmental impacts of microplastics. Initial research appears to indicate that ingesting it—either directly or indirectly—could cause inflammation that may lead to disease. Plastics can also release toxic substances into the water, which may end up impacting population sizes by reducing fertility.

Oceans are also being impacted by the burning of fossil fuels and subsequent release of greenhouse gasses like carbon dioxide—about 30 percent of which is absorbed by the sea. It is known this absorption causes ocean acidification—where the pH level is altered to become more acidic. The change has adverse impacts on marine life, making it harder for some creatures to form shells and skeletons. Ocean acidification, scientists say, has the potential to cause huge disruptions to ecosystems. Indeed, it is thought to have played an important role in Earth's worst-ever mass extinction event, 252 million years ago.

Efforts to tackle climate change are ongoing—but many believe not enough is being done to meet targets set out in the Paris climate agreement to limit warming to around 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Current models suggest we may be on course to see 4 degrees of warming by 2100.

As a result, understanding the role they have on global systems is becoming more and more important. Ocean currents are known greatly affect the weather. Colder sea surface temperatures in the Pacific, for example, have the potential to cause megadroughts across the U.S. Midwest. Climate change is also expected to bring more severe hurricanes over the coming decades, along with huge changes to ocean systems.

"Changes in ocean temperatures and currents brought about by climate change will lead to alterations in climate patterns around the world," according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Earth from space
Earth from space. The ocean makes up over two-thirds of the planet, yet we've only explored about 5 percent of it. NASA

Earth's oceans make up two-thirds of the planet, yet only about 5 percent has been explored. For this reason, Cameron is calling for a push in ocean research—an area of science he says is "insanely underfunded."

Cameron said new species are discovered on virtually any dive into deepest parts of the ocean, and researching those regions is essential to our understanding of several life-threatening factors for humanity, including plate tectonics. "The deadliest tsunamis are created by seismic activity in the deep trenches, including the Christmas tsunami that devastated Indonesia and the monstrous waves that caused the meltdown of the Fukushima reactor in Japan," he explained. "Only by studying what's happening down there in much more detail could we ever develop predictive models and advanced warning systems."

Cameron said we need massive funding to deploy a "global fleet of swarm robotics" to investigate the oceans' depths and give us data on the effects of climate change, such as "the flux of carbon into the oceans and how much is being sequestered in the deep; the destabilization of methane hydrate deposits that are dumping vast quantities of warming gas into our atmosphere and may accelerate our climate crisis to an extinction scale event; the flux of heat from the warming atmosphere into the oceans, and how long the oceans can act to buffer that heat before they're maxed out; [and] the way heat is being stored in the oceans—and coming back out as the increased energy driving the powerful hurricanes and cyclones that are devastating the world."

If we fail, Cameron said, it will be "at our extreme peril."

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This story is part of a Covering Climate Now project from the Columbia Journalism Review.