What Is The Great Garbage Patch In The North Pacific? (video)

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Although the amount of garbage in the "Great Garbage Patch" has been exaggerated, it still remains an environmental travesty.

In the North Pacific swirls an enormous clockwise vortex generated by four converging currents from the north, south, east, and west. Like a slow and steady whirlpool, the North Pacific Ocean Gyre, as these vortices are referred to in oceanography, is a giant trap for anything that drifts into its belly. And as two of its source currents come from the coastlines of California and Japan with lots of people and lots of plastic, the vast majority of debris that ends up floating in the gyre are plastic bottles, plastic fishing equipment, plastic combs and lighters…pretty much anything made of plastic that people typically carry in their pockets and backpacks. And then there’s been the occasional bolus of debris from imperiled trans-Pacific cargo ships such as the “Great Shoe Spill of 1990” in which the Hansa Carrier dumped 61,000 Nike shoes south of the Alaskan Peninsula. The size of the gyre is estimated to be about 7 to 9 million square miles. That’s equivalent to about three times the area of the continental United States. That’s a potential for a stupendous amount of ocean garbage.

And the estimates are frightening.

The North Pacific Ocean Gyre is generated by four major ocean currents that create an enormous and slow moving vortex.

In 2006 the LA Times covered the Great Garbage Patch as part of a Pulitzer Prize winning series on oceans. They describe the patch as “perhaps the world’s largest dump: a slowly rotating mass of trash-laden water about twice the size of Texas.” That’s quite an estimate. Without satellite or aerial photos – the debris is too diffuse to be visualized from above – some wondered how they reached such a vast assessment.

Others didn’t. Since that article was written other news sites including the NY Times, SFGate, Physorg – even HowStuffWorks – have depicted a plastic island twice the size of Texas. A bloggerhead alarm precipitated among the environment-conscious that was dwarfed only by the patch itself.

And yet no one had seen the Great Garbage Patch for themselves.

This past January, however, one ocean scientist at Oregon State got fed up with patch frenzy and started making her own waves. In lieu of trawling an area of water three times the size of the US, Angelicque White, an assistant professor at Oregon’s College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences, thought the next best thing would be to collect all the reports from oceanographers who had trawled some part of it. In addition to compiling the published literature, she actually went out to the patch and took a look for herself.

Her investigation led White to say the popular perception of the extent of the patch was incredibly exaggerated. Claims such as there’s more plastic than plankton, that the patch is as deep as the Golden Gate Bridge is tall, she argued, are not only false but they’re damaging to the credibility of scientists. “We have data that allow us reasonable estimates,” she said in a press release, “we don’t need hyperbole.” She argued that a common mistake is to assume that a high concentration of garbage in one area means a high concentration of garbage for the entire area.

So how big does White think the Great Garbage Patch is? If all the debris were to be gathered into one “cohesive” plastic patch, she concludes, it would come nowhere close to the size of two Texases. It would, in fact, only cover less than one percent of the state.

That’s not even a Rhode Island!

Turns out that claims that the patch has been growing tenfold since the 1950s are also hyperbolic. White does acknowledge, however, that any plastic is bad plastic, and that there’s no telling how much plastic may have sunk to the ocean floor or below the surface where it wouldn’t be seen from planes or often even boats. And forget satellites, they can’t even see the surface material (try looking for it on Google Earth).

A snapping turtle affectionately known as Mae West had a plastic ring trapped around its shell as a baby.

But White makes sure to say that the amount of plastic in the gyre, even if it is only a fraction of the previous estimate, is not trivial. I would love to give you a figure right now more concrete than less than one percent the size of Texas, but it simply doesn’t exist. One might think though, that if anyone has answers, it would be the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. And in fact, they have an entire page dedicated to “What We Know” about garbage patches (there are others). But it becomes quickly clear that what we know is not very much at all.

FAQs: How big is the patch?

“There really is no accurate estimate on the size or mass of the garbage patch.” They go on to say that the scattered nature of the debris across the expansive gyre would make a “statistically sound survey quite labor-intensive and likely expensive.” They do confirm, though, that the debris is overwhelmingly plastic.

I actually suspect that the writers of the LA Times article doesn’t really think there’s a semi-solid plastic aggregate twice the size of Texas bobbing somewhere between Alaska and Hawaii. If that were the case, I doubt seriously we would be debating its existence, and I would not have only heard about it a few days ago. I suspect what they meant to say was that there is a lot of crap spread out over a lot of space, even if most of it is hard to see.

Nonetheless, when White stated her conclusions there was a perception to be erased. Her report received a lot of attention. And some have interpreted the vastly downsized estimate to say there isn’t a care in the water world. Responding to recent efforts by San Francisco Supervisor Ross Mirkarmi’s plan to expand plastic bag restrictions, the Save the Plastic Bag Coalition cited White’s report in petition against the ban. They wrote in a petition to the Supervisor “STPB believes and contends that some environmental groups seeking to have plastic bags banned have spread environmental myths, misinformation, exaggeration, false statistics, and selective photography.”

Albatross birds will mistaken plastic for food, with predictable consequences.

While there’s no doubting that some of the force driving the perception of a patch twice the size of Texas was more political than scientific, we should caution against equating our withdrawal from hyperbole to a withdrawal from hazard. The wildlife in the North Pacific aren’t debating the garbage density of the patch. They seek out food, and often mistake plastic for prey. A study released by the Scripps Institute this past June quantified the amount of plastic ingested by fish swimming at “intermediate” depths of the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre. They found that 9 percent of the fish had plastic in their stomach. They estimated that a total of 12,000 to 24,000 tons are ingested by fish each year in the area. Even that number is likely to be an underestimate, as many of the fish that eat plastic will have died.

The garbage can be enticing from above as well. The large, albatross birds that fly over the gyre in search of food for their young will mistakenly bring back and feed their chicks bottle caps. Scientists open up the chicks and find their bellies stuffed with bottle caps, lighters, even dolls.

Pictures are worth a thousand words. Here’s a BBC video showing a collection of debris found in the stomachs of albatross birds killed by ingesting the junk. Appearing in the video is Captain Charles Moore, who first discovered the Great Garbage Patch in 1997 while sailing across the Pacific. However much trash is really swirling around in the North Pacific Ocean Gyre, however “Great” the Patch really happens to be, any amount of plastic is harmful to the ocean and to the sea life. That’s a fact that doesn’t need to be hyped.

[image credits: The Daily Green, Oprah, NOAA, Questgarden, Care2, and The Daily Telegraph]

image 1: Patch
image 2: Surface garbage
image 3: NOAA
image 4: Questgarden
image 5: Mae West
image 6: Albatross
video: BBC Earth

Peter Murray was born in Boston in 1973. He earned a PhD in neuroscience at the University of Maryland, Baltimore studying gene expression in the neocortex. Following his dissertation work he spent three years as a post-doctoral fellow at the same university studying brain mechanisms of pain and motor control. He completed a collection of short stories in 2010 and has been writing for Singula...

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