Great Pacific Garbage Patch Greater than Initially Thought

A newly surfaced study reports that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch—a mass of debris floating in the North Pacific Gyre—is up to 2.5 times larger than previously estimated by scientists and government officials.

The analysis, lead by oceanographer Giora Proskurowski, focused on finding the amount of garbage below the ocean’s surface, a depth defined as the top twenty-five centimeters of water. What Proskurowski’s team discovered was alarming: trash was present as far down as 25 meters under the ocean’s coat.

In other words, earlier studies had deeply underestimated the size of the garbage patch and the amount of debris swirling in the Pacific.

Proskurowski first thought to delve below the problem’s surface while watching the waves during a sailing trip; he noticed scraps of debris pulling a disappearing act, sinking down into the deep when the wind picked up.

Together with Tobias Kukulka of the University of Delaware, he devised a plan to measure just how much trash was really hidden from view, using a system of nets that opened and closed only at specific depths.

“Almost every subsurface tow we took had plastic in the net,” said Proskurowski in an interview with LiveScience.

Proskurowski and Kukulka then used their data to make a mathematical model capable of calculating the average amounts of garbage at different depths, as well as how those numbers changed with varying wind velocities.

Their conclusion? Studies relying only on surface-sampling underestimated the level of trash in the water by 2.5 times, and on a windy day, a mind-bogglingly shocking 27 times.

Gathered and held together by ocean currents, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, also known as the Pacific Trash Vortex, contains high levels of an assortment of plastic debris—abandoned fishing nets, plastic bags, food wrappers—that breaks down into tiny pieces, but does not biodegrade. Because the plastic can decompose all the way to the molecular level, the garbage patch is not clearly visible.

But as we’ve learned, even though we see no evil, the evil still exists.

Plastic waste is capable of disrupting ecosystems, both on the microscopic and macroscopic level. Fish, birds, and other marine animals can ingest chemicals that cause hormone disruption and other toxic effects, and chunks of plastic that their digestive systems cannot break down. Additionally, specks of trash can house bacteria and algae, and carry them to new ecosystems where they potentially become invasive species.

In response to the study’s findings, an online petition has begun, aimed at urging the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to take greater action in battling the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Anyone interested in signing the survey may do so here:

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