The giant garbage vortex in the Pacific Ocean is over twice the size of Texas - here's what it looks like
The Ocean Cleanup
- The term "Great Pacific Garbage Patch" refers to a massive area more than 1.6 million square kilometers in size, but it's just part of the North Pacific gyre, an ocean region where currents collect plastic.
- Researchers from the Ocean Cleanup just conducted a survey of plastic in the area, using boats to trawl the water and conducting an aerial investigation of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch from a plane.
- They found that the amount of plastic there seems to be increasing exponentially and may be 16 times more than previously thought, according to a study recently published by the Ocean Cleanup team.
Every little bit of plastic that gets tossed into the ocean or swept downstream out to sea either sinks into the water or is picked up by ocean currents. Much of it is eventually carried into one of five massive ocean regions, where plastic can be so concentrated that large areas are now referred to by names like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
While the term "garbage patch" might make you think of something you pass by on the side of the road, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is less like a patch and more like a massive swirling vortex that's over three times the size of Spain and more than twice the size of Turkey or Texas.
And it's growing and collecting more plastic rapidly, according to a study newly published in the Nature journal Scientific Reports by researchers associated with the Ocean Cleanup Foundation.
There might be more than 16 times as much plastic in the vortex than previous studies have estimated, according to the Ocean Cleanup researchers.
An aerial view of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch from a plane might appear to be open water. But inside that water there's debris from all over the world. That plastic debris traps marine animals or is eaten by them, filling up animals' bodies to the point of being fatal and tainting our food supply as well.
More than 320 million metric tons of plastic are produced every year - and a disturbing amount of that ends up in the ocean, with much of it accumulating in places like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
Much of the Ocean Cleanup's data on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch comes from a 2015 expedition that involved 18 vessels.
The ships trawled the waters using Manta trawl nets outfitted with mesh to catch as much plastic as possible.
The area they focused on is a particularly concentrated part of one of the five global gyres where ocean currents collect plastic from around the world.
The region itself is huge, at more than 1.6 million square kilometers (617,763 square miles).
In 2016, the Ocean Cleanup conducted an aerial survey of the region to refine its data and count larger pieces of plastic (greater than 50cm) with a Hercules C-130 aircraft.
They collected 1,136,145 pieces of debris that weighed a total of 668 kg and consisted of 99.9% plastic.
From that, the researchers estimated the area has at least 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic in the waters, weighing 79 thousand metric tons — with more arriving every minute of every day.
They estimated that 1.7 trillion of the pieces are microplastics, between .05 and .5 cm in size, but that 92% of the total plastic mass comes from larger pieces.
Shockingly, they also estimated that 46% of the plastic mass is from lost fishing nets known as "ghostnets" that drift through the sea, ensnaring creatures and breaking into smaller bits of plastic.
The team also thinks the 2011 Tohoku tsunami that hit Japan could have significantly added to the mass of plastic.
This may vastly underestimate the amount of plastic in the area, both because they only measured within the boundaries of the "patch" — not the full gyre — and because many other researchers think there are far more microplastics deeper in the water.
While the Ocean Cleanup wants to push for a plan to clean up the plastic in the patch, many researchers think our best bet is stopping pollution from making it into the ocean in the first place.
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