Our Plastic Trash Form Giant Ocean Patches, Study

New research shows that it doesn’t matter where in the world plastic garbage enters the ocean, it can end up in any of the five ocean basins.

AsianScientist (Jan. 21, 2013) – New research shows that it doesn’t matter where in the world plastic garbage enters the ocean, it can end up in any of the five ocean basins.

The research also showed that, globally, humans have put so much plastic into our planet’s oceans that even if everyone in the world stopped putting garbage in the ocean today, giant garbage patches would continue to grow for hundreds of years.

These were just two startling results from an investigation by researchers at the Australian Research Council Center of Excellence for Climate System Science, based at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), that looked at how these giant ocean garbage patches form as a result of ocean currents.

“There are five known garbage patches in the subtropical oceans between each of the continents. Each contains so much plastic that if you were to drag a net through these areas you would pull up more plastic than biomass,” said lead author Dr. Erik Van Sebille, who is a Research Fellow at the Center.

“Interestingly, our research suggests a smaller sixth garbage patch may form within the Arctic Circle in the Barents Sea, although we don’t expect that to appear for another 50 years.”

Another result showed, for the first time, that giant oceanic eddies, some up to 50 kilometers across, actually helped shift plastics between garbage patches that were thousands of miles apart and in entirely different oceans.

“This means that garbage from any country can end up in any one of these garbage patches. This tells us that no single country is responsible. Ocean garbage is an international problem that requires an international solution,” said Van Sebille.

To achieve their results, the researchers used data from drifter buoys, which are part of the Global Drifter Program, to determine the movement of surface ocean currents. The program releases hundreds of drifter buoys into the ocean every year.

Each buoy floats around the ocean sending out regular 140 character messages on its location and the ocean conditions it’s experiencing. Van Sebille describes it as being like Twitter from the ocean.

The data gathered by these buoys was then used to determine how garbage, and plastics in particular, moved around the ocean. The garbage eventually found its way to areas where ocean currents and winds converged, known as gyres. It was here that the massive garbage patches formed.

“If you sail through these areas you will not see big lumps of plastics or rubber duckies or things like that. The sun and interaction with the ocean breaks the plastics down into very small pellets that are almost invisible to the naked eye,” Van Sebille said.

“However, these plastics even at this small size do affect ecosystems – fish and albatross swallow these plastics while phytoplankton can use the floating pellets to stay buoyant and float near the surface where they grow best,” he said.

Watch a video on charting the garbage patches in the sea:


Source: UNSW; Photo: epSos.de/Flickr/CC.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

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