Water Education - The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

The world's oceans are home to an incredibly diverse array of life but unfortunately, due to pollution, are also littered with trash. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, also referred to as the Pacific trash vortex, is a collection of debris located in the North Pacific Ocean. The patch consists of marine debris, which is garbage that winds up in oceans, and other big bodies of water. The Pacific trash vortex is so large that it spans from waters off the west coast of North America all the way to Japan. The Patch actually consists of two different garbage patches, the Eastern Garbage Patch which is located between California and Hawaii, and the Western Garbage Patch which is located near Japan.

How the Great Pacific Garbage Patch was Discovered

Prior to the actual discovery of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in 1999, it was predicted in a paper published by the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in 1988. Their prediction was based on previous research that measured plastic debris floating on the surface of the North Pacific ocean. This research, which was obtained between 1985 and 1988 found very high concentrations of marine debris that accumulated in various areas due to ocean currents. The researchers were able to predict that marine debris would gather in areas where prevailing currents created fairly stable water. The research even specifically mentioned the North Pacific Gyre. In 1999, while returning home from a sailing race, Charles J. Moore, happened upon the enormous patch of debris. Many people picture giant heaps of floating trash when they hear about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch but in actuality, much of the area is not easily visible because the pieces of debris, particularly plastic, are so minuscule.

How Much Trash is in the Patch?

Researchers are not sure exactly how much debris makes up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Not only is the area too large to trawl, not all of the debris floats on the surface of the water. The debris that is more dense will sink beneath the surface, making the patch almost impossible to measure. It is known that approximately 80% of the debris located in the trash vortex comes from land based activities in both Asia and North America. Trash from Japan and nearby Asian countries can reach the patch in about a year while trash from the North American coast takes about six years to reach the patch. The other 20% of the debris located in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch comes from places such as offshore oil rigs, cargo ships, and boaters. Much of this debris consists of fishing nets as well as dropped shipping containers filled with all kinds of items. While the trash vortex is home to many different types of garbage, the majority of the patch consists of plastic. This is due to the fact that plastic is not biodegradable. Plastic does not biodegrade but it does break down into smaller and smaller pieces through a process known as photodegradation. The tiny pieces of plastic then float in the Patch, where it is estimated there are almost 2 million pieces per square mile.

Effects Of Trash In Our Oceans

Marine debris can cause serious harm to marine life. Garbage can be mistaken for food, causing animals to starve to death, or die from injuries due to ingesting plastic. Marine animals are also at great risk of becoming entangled in debris, especially old fishing nets, where they can drown. Researchers have found that marine debris also disrupts the food cycles within the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, where the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is located. As tiny pieces of plastic and other trash continue to gather on the surface of the water, they can block out sunlight and prevent it from reaching the algae and plankton below. Plankton and algae are an important part of the food web and if their populations are threatened, it can cause a decrease in many different types of marine life. In addition to these risks, marine debris can pose other dangers. As plastic breaks down, it can release harmful chemicals and colorants that have been shown to cause health and environmental problems. Plastics are also able to absorb pollutants, such as harmful PCBs, which can then be transferred to marine life if they consume the debris.

Can The Great Pacific Garbage Patch Be Cleaned Up?

Unfortunately because the garbage patch is so far away from any one country's coastline, no particular country wants to be responsible for providing the large amount of money needed to clean it up. Moore, who discovered the patch, believes that if any one nation were to clean up the patch, it would completely bankrupt them. There are however many international organizations and individuals that have dedicated themselves to preventing the patch from increasing in size. Cleaning up marine debris is very difficult and the NOAA has estimated that in one year, 67 ships would only be able to clean up less than one percent of the garbage in the North Pacific Ocean.

With individuals and environmental organizations working hard to raise awareness about trash in our oceans, there is hope that at the very least, we can prevent the issue from getting worse. By using less disposables and plastics, everyone can do their part to ensure that in the future our oceans will be able to sustain the immense amount of life that they are currently home to.

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