The North Pacific Trash Gyre

The North Pacific Trash Gyre really shows just how much pollution floats around our planet. Plastic is the main form of trash in our oceans and not only pollutes our oceans but also kills birds and sea life. Recycling our trash, especially plastic can hel

The North Pacific Trash Gyre is also known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and the Pacific Trash Vortex. A gyre is an area of the ocean where currents, wind and the earth’s rotation causes a constant circular rotation of the ocean. There are five ocean gyres, The North Pacific, The South Pacific, The North Atlantic, The South Atlantic and in the Indian Ocean.

The Pacific Ocean Gyre is centered near the Hawaiian Islands. The ocean currents in this area move in a clockwise direction with four different currents creating the gyre. The rotation of the Earth causes the Coriolis Effect which causes the water to tend to move to the right of the direction of the flow, causing the water to move towards the center of the gyre drawing the trash towards the center of the North Pacific Gyre.

The North Pacific Trash Gyre

It wasn’t until 1997, when on his way back to California that Charles Moore discovered the North Pacific Trash Gyre. After participating in the Los Angeles to Hawaii yacht race, yachtsman Charles Moore decided to sail through the North Pacific Gyre. Expecting nothing but a wide open ocean, he and his crew saw miles of floating trash. It took Moore a week to cross the gyre and not once did he see a clear trash free ocean

The circular rotation of the ocean gyre draws trash towards and into the gyre much like you would see trash circulating around a storm drain. This same motion causes the trash to continue to flow in and accumulate and prevents it from escaping. The North Pacific Trash Gyre is actually two trash vortex’s, one to the west closer to Japan and this larger main one, designated the Eastern Pacific Trash Gyre between California and Hawaii.

Garbage in the Pacific Trash Gyre

This circling trash gyre is not a huge pile of trash or an island of trash. The trash gyre is a very large area of garbage. Much of the trash is tiny bits of plastic known as microplastic. Plastic does not wear down; it continues to break down into smaller bits of plastic or microplastic. These small bits of microplastic range in size between 0.3 and 5 millimeters in diameter or no larger than 0.20 inches in diameter.

The garbage in the Pacific Trash Gyre is not just plastic, but also contains bottles, golf balls, glass bottles, medical waste, cans, traffic cones, toothbrushes, packing Styrofoam, tires, lighters and discarded fishing nets.

Once Charles Moore and his crew made this trash gyre discovery, scientists and foundations have gone to the trash gyre to document and study the area. Scientist have collected as much as 750,000 pieces of plastic and microplastic in a one square kilometer area, which is about 1.9 million pieces of trash per square mile. It is estimated that 20% of this trash comes from ships and platforms with the rest coming off of the land floating down rivers to the ocean.

No one really knows the size of the Pacific Trash Gyre, but speculation range from a size equal to the state of Texas to twice the size of the United States. The trash that accumulates in the Pacific Ocean Trash Gyre comes from North America and Asia.

Invisible to Satellites

The North Pacific Trash Gyre cannot be seen on satellite pictures. This is because the area is not some huge floating island of trash like some believe. It is a very large area of the ocean that has a great deal of garbage in it.

For the most part the trash is the small microplastic pieces and not huge pieces of garbage. Most of the small plastic pieces are below the surface of the ocean and satellite pictures cannot pick them up.

Trash under the water                         NOAA

Animal Life in the Pacific Trash Gyre

Needless to say this huge area of trash is harmful to all of the life in and above the ocean. Birds and fish eat this microplastic trash which then fills them up without being able to be digested. The birds and fish actually starve to death because they cannot eat normal food with all of this trash in them.

The United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) estimates that a million sea-birds and 100,000 sea mammals including sea turtles are killed each year by ingesting the pollution in this floating trash gyre [1].

These plastic bits of trash also absorb other pollutants known as persistent organic pollutants (POPs), pollution that never leaves the environment or breaks down. This chemical pollution includes insecticides pesticides, fungicides, solvents, PCBs, coolants, lubricants and other toxic chemicals.

When the fish then eat the plastic bits, this chemical pollution then enters into the entire food chain of the oceans, a food chain that we also eat when we eat fish.

Other Ocean Trash Gyres

The Atlantic Ocean Gyre is also known as the Sargasso Sea and also collects garbage and pollution much like the North Pacific Trash Gyre does.

Even though the North Sea is not an ocean gyre, scientists in the North Sea have discovered 110 pieces of trash for every square kilometer (0.39 square miles) of the seabed. This equals 600,000 tons of pollution in the North Sea.

Garbage collected near Hawaii.      US Fish and Wildlife

Cleaning the North Pacific Trash Gyres

There really is no way to clean the North Pacific Trash Gyre or the other trash gyres. They are so large in huge oceans, that the technology or money is not available to clean an entire ocean trash gyre.

The best thing that we can do is to try and keep the ocean trash gyres from getting any bigger. There will always be trash drawn to these ocean gyres that are beyond our control. The terrible tsunami in Japan alone will add a great deal of trash to the Pacific trash gyre.

We have become a use it once and throw it away society. We should recycle every chance we have. Many cities offer recycling for all kinds of trash including most plastic. Paper grocery bags are biodegradable and more environmentally friendly than plastic bags.

Copyright © Sam Montana 2012

Resources

Main Article picture by Justin Ornellas / Flickr.com

[1] United Nations Environmental Program

Greenpeace

Algalita Marine Research Foundation

NOAA National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration

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