The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

The Earth’s oceans have five major gyres — systems of rotating ocean currents which spiral, creating (to a large degree) a self-contained ecosystem.  The largest of these five — and the largest ecosystem in the world — is the North Pacific Ocean Gyre.

The North Pacific Ocean Gyre is also home to an enormous collection of trash, called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

The Patch consists of two parts connected by a 6,000 mile current known as the Subtropical Convergence Zone.  One, the Western Patch, is situated between Japan and Hawaii.  The other, the Eastern Patch, floats between Hawaii and California.  The Eastern Patch is roughly two to three times the size of Texas, and all told, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch contains millions of pounds of trash, mostly plastics, chemical sludge, and debris.

(This isn’t unique to the Pacific Ocean. While the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is unique in its size, there are also similar ones in character in both the Indian Ocean and North Atlantic Ocean.)

The Patch is not a big garbage dump, but rather, something more akin to soup, with pieces of garbage no larger than confetti — and in many cases, so small as to be accurately regarded as particulate matter — suspended in the water.  The Patch is not visible to satellites due to the tiny size of most of individual pieces of garbage, but water sampling in the area shows a near 100% rate of the presence of trash.  And it’s not all tiny pieces of junk.  In an article speculating that debris from the Japanese tsunami may end up in the Patch, the Daily Mail(UK) notes that the Patch contains everything from pacifiers and flip-flops to children’s toys and the occasional abandoned yacht.  (Really.)

Most believe that the Patch developed over the course of decades, slowly collecting in one central place.  The same Daily Mail article notes that some debris dates back 60 years, and the Patch may have existed 100 or more years ago.

How did it all get this junk get there?  The magnitude and direction of ocean currents move everything in their reach toward this one central location.   This — and the sheer size of the Patch — make any efforts and remediation (at least given our current technology) futile.


Bonus fact: In 1992, a ship en route to Seattle from China lost some cargo — nearly 30,000 rubber ducks, called the Friendly Floatees.  The ducks fell overboard and ten months later, many washed up ashore in Alaska.  However, many more remained at sea.  Since the accident, oceanographers have been using the ducks to chart ocean currents.  Wikipedia has a map of their travels.

From the Archives: The World’s Largest Swimming Pool — powered by water brought directly in from the Pacific.

Related reading: “Washed Up: The Curious Journeys of Flotsam and Jetsam” by Skye Kathleen Moody.  Four stars, available on Kindle.