Monday, 1 April 2013

The Great Pacific Sock Patch

According to figures released by the Index of International Statistics, the Great Pacific Sock Patch may be one of the greatest environmental threats of our time. In this region off Australia's east coast, millions of odd socks churn, from every nation in the Pacific Rim. Some are sweat socks. Some are dress socks. Black, white, and argyle; toe socks and boot socks and nylons. And around December, a documented uptick in Christmas stockings. But they all have three things in common: they're footwear; they're unmated; and they threaten one of the world's most sensitive habitats.

The basic mechanics of the Sock Patch phenomenon have been known for centuries, but with global warming accelerating the rotation of the Pacific gyres, it has become a matter of international concern. Single socks have a well-documented tendency to drift; that's why you're likely to find fewer of them after laundering than before. Over the years there have been many attempts to explain this frustrating peculiarity. Children in my grandparents' day were told stories of the Sock Thug, a pirate who stumped into homes while the noise from the washing machine masked his footstep and snatched out single socks to sell to other pirates. Families in the 1940s were cautioned against keeping cats, after an article in Ladies' Saturday Evening Journal posited a high correlation between having a cat in the house and coming up short on stockings. And then there was the exorcism fad of the 1970s, when priests were called into homes to cast out the "dryer demons" that randomly ate socks. Because, you know: evil.

But in the mid-1990s, scientists working with superconductors finally cracked the case. Turns out all socks are either positively or negatively charged. The negative side of the pair tends to remain passive, but the positive one leans, imperceptibly, toward ground. That's why they often end up on the ground, and then, drawn by the superior conductivity of water, in lakes and streams. At last they reach the Pacific Ocean, where they swirl in the currents, slowly wending their way south, drawn apparently by the static cling generated by Australia's low average relative humidity. Sadly, before they can actually wash up on the Fatal Shore, they become snagged on the giant barbed wire fence that is the Great Barrier Reef. So insidious is this phenomenon that parts of the world's largest living structure are now all but buried in odd stockings, smothering the coral and hastening its destruction by storms, owing to greater resistance.

Solutions have so far proven elusive. Attempts to interest private industry in harvesting the garments have foundered on the expense of sorting, coupled with the lower saleability of unmatched socks. Like so many other human-generated threats, the best response may be a fundamental change of lifestyle. The California Maritime Coalition suggests pinning socks together before washing them, a time-honoured strategy that not only keeps stray stockings out of the world's water, but also produces substantial savings for large families. Others advocate a total ban on wearing socks at all, while still others are calling for legislation to require that all socks henceforward be made of hemp.

Because, you know: hemp.

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