Research balloons may pose threat to whales Ecologist raises concern for endangered species


The plastic balloons that physicists use to gather information about weather, climate, ozone depletion and cosmic rays may pose a threat to endangered species of whales, an aquatic ecologist at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory has warned.

Dr. Gerald K. Eddlemon, one of 200 ecologists at the lab in Tennessee, told members of the Ecological Society of America at their meeting last month in Albuquerque, N.M., that he was particularly concerned about the survival of blue whales and right whales.

The world population of blue whales is probably fewer than 10,000. There are probably no more than 3,000 right whales.

"We had always assumed that the chance of a whale encountering a downed polyethylene balloon at sea was remote, because the ocean is so large," Eddlemon said in an interview. "But we did some calculations based on the fact that about 10,000 balloons are launched from dozens of bases in Antarctica each year, and many of them land in the ocean."

Up to 80 percent of the world's blue whales, the largest of all animals, seasonally congregate in Antarctic waters to enjoy a rich harvest of krill and other small animals.

"We considered a whale's cruising speed, the size of its mouth and some other factors in our mathematical model," Eddlemon said, "and calculated that any whale feeding in Antarctic waters has a 7 percent chance of meeting a balloon during one year. That adds up to several hundred encounters for the whale population each year."

Eddlemon said it was not known whether whales in Antarctic waters swallowed balloons or generally avoided them.

"But we do know that in temperate waters dead whales have been found with plastic containers obstructing their gut," he said. "We know also that floating plastic bags are a deadly menace for loggerhead sea turtles, which mistake them for jellyfish, one of the turtles' main foods."

The balloons launched from Antarctica range in size from weather sondes a few yards in diameter to stratospheric balloons that carry tons of instruments used in astrophysical investigations.

Pub Date: 9/21/97

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