The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a collection of marine debris in the North Pacific Ocean. Marine debris is litter that ends up in oceans, seas, and other large bodies of water.The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, also known as the Pacific trash vortex, spans waters from the West Coast of North America to Japan. The patch is actually comprised of the Western Garbage Patch, located near Japan, and the Eastern Garbage Patch, located between the U.S. states of Hawaii and California.These areas of spinning debris are linked together by the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone, located a few hundred kilometers north of Hawaii. This convergence zone is where warm water from the South Pacific meets up with cooler water from the Arctic. The zone acts like a highway that moves debris from one patch to another.The entire Great Pacific Garbage Patch is bounded by the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre. An ocean gyre is a system of circular ocean currents formed by the Earth’s wind patterns and the forces created by the rotation of the planet. The North Pacific Subtropical Gyre is created by the interaction of the California, North Equatorial, Kuroshiro, and North Pacific currents. These four currents move in a clockwise direction around an area of 20 million square kilometers (7.7 million square miles).The area in the center of a gyre tends to be very calm and stable. The circular motion of the gyre draws debris into this stable center, where it becomes trapped. A plastic water bottle discarded off the coast of California, for instance, takes the California Current south toward Mexico. There, it may catch the North Equatorial Current, which crosses the vast Pacific. Near the coast of Japan, the bottle may travel north on the powerful Kuroshiro Current. Finally, the bottle travels westward on the North Pacific Current. The gently rolling vortexes of the Eastern and Western Garbage Patches gradually draw in the bottle.The amount of debris in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch accumulates because much of it is not biodegradable. Many plastics, for instance, do not wear down; they simply break into tinier and tinier pieces.For many people, the idea of a “garbage patch” conjures up images of an island of trash floating on the ocean. In reality, these patches are almost entirely made up of tiny bits of plastic, called microplastics. Microplastics can’t always be seen by the naked eye. Even satellite imagery doesn’t show a giant patch of garbage. The microplastics of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch can simply make the water look like a cloudy soup. This soup is intermixed with larger items, such as fishing gear and shoes.The seafloor beneath the Great Pacific Garbage Patch may also be an underwater trash heap. Oceanographers and ecologists recently discovered that about 70% of marine debris actually sinks to the bottom of the ocean.While oceanographers and climatologists predicted the existence of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, it was a racing boat captain by the name of Charles Moore who actually discovered the trash vortex. Moore was sailing from Hawaii to California after competing in a yachting race. Crossing the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, Moore and his crew noticed millions of pieces of plastic surrounding his ship.Marine DebrisNo one knows how much debris makes up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The North Pacific Subtropical Gyre is too large for scientists to trawl. In addition, not all trash floats on the surface. Denser debris can sink centimeters or even several meters beneath the surface, making the vortex’s area nearly impossible to measure.About 80% of the debris in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch comes from land-based activities in North America and Asia. Trash from the coast of North America takes about six years to reach the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, while trash from Japan and other Asian countries takes about a year.The remaining 20% of debris in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch comes from boaters, offshore oil rigs, and large cargo ships that dump or lose debris directly into the water. The majority of this debris—about 79,000 tons—is fishing nets. More unusual items, such as computer monitors and LEGOs, come from dropped shipping containers.While many different types of trash enter the ocean, plastics make up the majority of marine debris for two reasons. First, plastic’s durability, low cost, and malleability mean that it’s being used in more and more consumer and industrial products. Second, plastic goods do not biodegrade but instead break down into smaller pieces.In the ocean, the sun breaks down these plastics into tinier and tinier pieces, a process known as photodegradation. Scientists have collected up to 750,000 bits of microplastic in a single square kilometer of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch—that’s about 1.9 million bits per square mile. Most of this debris comes from plastic bags, bottle caps, plastic water bottles, and Styrofoam cups.Marine debris can be very harmful to marine life in the gyre. For instance, loggerhead sea turtles often mistake plastic bags for jellies, their favorite food. Albatrosses mistake plastic resin pellets for fish eggs and feed them to chicks, which die of starvation or ruptured organs.Seals and other marine mammals are especially at risk. They can get entangled in abandoned plastic fishing nets, which are being discarded more often because of their low cost. Seals and other mammals often drown in these forgotten nets—a phenomenon known as “ghost fishing.”Marine debris can also disturb marine food webs in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre. As microplastics and other trash collect on or near the surface of the ocean, they block sunlight from reaching plankton and algae below. Algae and plankton are the most common autotrophs, or producers, in the marine food web. Autotrophs are organisms that can produce their own nutrients from oxygen, carbon, and sunlight.If algae and plankton communities are threatened, the entire food web may change. Animals that feed on algae and plankton, such as fish and turtles, will have less food. If populations of those animals decrease, there will be less food for apex predators such as tuna, sharks, and whales. Eventually, seafood becomes less available and more expensive for people.These dangers are compounded by the fact that plastics both leach out and absorb harmful pollutants. As plastics break down through photodegradation, they leach out colorants and chemicals, such as bisphenol A (BPA), that have been linked to environmental and health problems. Conversely, plastics can also absorb pollutants, such as PCBs, from the seawater. These chemicals can then enter the food chain when consumed by marine life.Patching Up the PatchBecause the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is so far from any country’s coastline, no nation will take responsibility or provide the funding to clean it up. Charles Moore, the man who discovered the vortex, says cleaning up the garbage patch would “bankrupt any country” that tried it.Many individuals and international organizations, however, are dedicated to preventing the patch from growing.Cleaning up marine debris is not as easy as it sounds. Many microplastics are the same size as small sea animals, so nets designed to scoop up trash would catch these creatures as well. Even if we could design nets that would just catch garbage, the size of the oceans makes this job far too time-consuming to consider. The National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Debris Program has estimated that it would take 67 ships one year to clean up less than one percent of the North Pacific Ocean.Many expeditions have traveled through the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Charles Moore, who discovered the patch in 1997, continues to raise awareness through his own environmental organization, the Algalita Marine Research Foundation. During a 2014 expedition, Moore and his team used aerial drones, to assess from above the extent of the trash below. The drones determined that there is 100 times more plastic by weight than previously measured. The team also discovered more permanent plastic features, or islands, some over 15 meters (50 feet) in length.All the floating plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch inspired National Geographic Emerging Explorer David de Rothschild and his team at Adventure Ecology to create a large catamaran made of plastic bottles: the Plastiki. The sturdiness of the Plastiki displayed the strength and durability of plastics, the creative ways that they can be repurposed, and the threat they pose to the environment when they don’t decompose. In 2010, the crew successfully navigated the Plastiki from San Francisco, California, to Sydney, Australia.Scientists and explorers agree that limiting or eliminating our use of disposable plastics and increasing our use of biodegradable resources will be the best way to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Organizations such as the Plastic Pollution Coalition and the Plastic Oceans Foundation are using social media and direct action campaigns to support individuals, manufacturers, and businesses in their transition from toxic, disposable plastics to biodegradable or reusable materials.
When ships are caught in storms, they often lose cargo to the oceans. The following are just a few of the strange items that have washed up on shores:
- In 1990, five shipping containers of Nike sneakers and work boots were lost to the Pacific in a storm. People in Washington and Oregon snatched up the shoes on shore, holding swap meets to find matched pairs to wear or sell.
- In 1992, rubber duckies floated in the Pacific when a ship lost tens of thousands of bathtub toys. The ducks were accompanied by turtles, beavers, and frogs.
- In 1994, a ship lost 34,000 pieces of hockey gear, including gloves, chest protectors, and shin guards.
"So on the way back to our home port in Long Beach, California, we decided to take a shortcut through the gyre, which few seafarers ever cross. Fishermen shun it because its waters lack the nutrients to support an abundant catch. Sailors dodge it because it lacks the wind to propel their sailboats.
"Yet as I gazed from the deck at the surface of what ought to have been a pristine ocean, I was confronted, as far as the eye could see, with the sight of plastic.
"It seemed unbelievable, but I never found a clear spot. In the week it took to cross the subtropical high, no matter what time of day I looked, plastic debris was floating everywhere: bottles, bottle caps, wrappers, fragments. Months later, after I discussed what I had seen with the oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer, perhaps the world's leading expert on flotsam, he began referring to the area as the 'eastern garbage patch.'"
Capt. Charles Moore, discoverer of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, in an article for Natural History magazine in 2003Worldwide Garbage PatchesThe Great Pacific Garbage Patch is not the only marine trash vortex—it’s just the biggest. The Atlantic and Indian Oceans both have trash vortexes. Even shipping routes in smaller bodies of water, such as the North Sea, are developing garbage patches.
Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry abandon Verb
to desert or leave entirely.
to soak up.
to gather or collect.
existing, moving, growing, or operating in the air.
algae Plural Noun
(singular: alga) diverse group of aquatic organisms, the largest of which are seaweeds.
apex predator Noun
species at the top of the food chain, with no predators of its own. Also called an alpha predator or top predator.
region at Earth's extreme north, encompassed by the Arctic Circle.
Encyclopedic Entry: Arctic assess Verb
to evaluate or determine the amount of.
organism that can produce its own food and nutrients from chemicals in the atmosphere, usually through photosynthesis or chemosynthesis.
Encyclopedic Entry: autotroph available Adjective
ready for use.
to cause a person or organization to lose their money or other funding and resources.
able to decompose naturally.
bisphenol A (BPA) Noun
chemical used to make some types of plastic that may be unsafe for people, especially infants.
to limit or confine.
sale of goods and services, or a place where such sales take place.
goods carried by a ship, plane, or other vehicle.
sailing vessel made of two large flotation devices and a frame above them.
person who studies long-term patterns in weather.
edge of land along the sea or other large body of water.
Encyclopedic Entry: coast compound Verb
to combine or put together.
to contain or be made up of.
to imagine or bring to mind.
to use up.
person who uses a good or service.
convergence zone Noun
area where prevailing winds from different areas meet and interact.
steady, predictable flow of fluid within a larger body of that fluid.
Encyclopedic Entry: current current Noun
steady, predictable flow of fluid within a larger body of that fluid.
Encyclopedic Entry: current debris Noun
remains of something broken or destroyed; waste, or garbage.
to decay or break down.
to sincerely devote time and effort to something.
having parts or molecules that are packed closely together.
to throw away.
to learn or understand something for the first time.
to throw away or get rid of.
unmanned aircraft that can be guided remotely.
ability to resist wear and decay.
scientist who studies the relationships between organisms and their environments.
Emerging Explorer Noun
an adventurer, scientist, innovator, or storyteller recognized by National Geographic for their visionary work while still early in their careers.
to tangle or twist together.
conditions that surround and influence an organism or community.
to guess based on knowledge of the situation or object.
journey with a specific purpose, such as exploration.
person who studies unknown areas.
degree or space to which a thing extends.
food chain Noun
group of organisms linked in order of the food they eat, from producers to consumers, and from prey, predators, scavengers, and decomposers.
Encyclopedic Entry: food chain food web Noun
all related food chains in an ecosystem. Also called a food cycle.
Encyclopedic Entry: food web funding Noun
money or finances.
ghost fishing Noun
continued trapping and killing of marine life by a discarded fishing net floating at sea
Great Pacific Garbage Patch Noun
area of the North Pacific Ocean where currents have trapped huge amounts of debris, mostly plastics.
Encyclopedic Entry: Great Pacific Garbage Patch harmful Adjective
large public road.
having to do with factories or mechanical production.
international organization Noun
unit made up of governments or groups in different countries, usually for a specific purpose.
Encyclopedic Entry: international organization island Noun
body of land surrounded by water.
Encyclopedic Entry: island leach Verb
to separate materials by running water or another liquid through them.
trash or other scattered objects left in an open area or natural habitat.
degree to which something can be shaped or molded.
to make or produce a good, usually for sale.
having to do with the ocean.
marine debris Noun
garbage, refuse, or other objects that enter the coastal or ocean environment.
Encyclopedic Entry: marine debris marine mammal Noun
an animal that lives most of its life in the ocean but breathes air and gives birth to live young, such as whales and seals.
to determine the numeric value of something, often in comparison with something else, such as a determined standard value.
piece of plastic between 0.3 and 5 millimeters in diameter.
to plan and direct the course of a journey.
substance an organism needs for energy, growth, and life.
Encyclopedic Entry: nutrient ocean Noun
large body of salt water that covers most of the Earth.
Encyclopedic Entry: ocean ocean gyre Noun
an area of ocean that slowly rotates in an enormous circle.
Encyclopedic Entry: ocean gyre oceanographer Noun
person who studies the ocean.
having to do with facilities or resources located underwater, usually miles from the coast.
oil rig Noun
complex series of machinery and systems used to drill for oil on land.
group of tissues that perform a specialized task.
living or once-living thing.
(polychlorinated biphenal) chemical substance that can occur naturally or be manufactured that may cause cancer.
small, rounded object.
an unusual act or occurrence.
process by which a substance is broken down by exposure to light.
large, spherical celestial body that regularly rotates around a star.
Encyclopedic Entry: planet plankton Plural Noun
(singular: plankton) microscopic aquatic organisms.
chemical material that can be easily shaped when heated to a high temperature.
(2009) sailing vessel made partly of plastic water bottles used to travel from San Francisco, California, to Sydney, Australia.
chemical or other substance that harms a natural resource.
total number of people or organisms in a particular area.
to know the outcome of a situation in advance.
to keep something from happening.
earlier, or the one before.
person or organization that creates (produces) goods and services.
clear, sticky substance produced by some plants.
being accountable and reliable for an action or situation.
object's complete turn around its own axis.
Encyclopedic Entry: rotation rupture Verb
to break or tear.
satellite imagery Noun
photographs of a planet taken by or from a satellite.
large part of the ocean enclosed or partly enclosed by land.
Encyclopedic Entry: sea seafloor Noun
surface layer of the bottom of the ocean.
fish and shellfish consumed by humans.
transportation of goods, usually by large boat.
steady and reliable.
dying from lack of food.
to scare or be a source of danger.
movement from one position to another.
movement from one place to another.
to fish by dragging a large net along the bottom of the body of water.
column of rotating fluid, such as air (wind) or water.
West Coast Noun
Pacific coast of the United States, usually excluding Alaska.
movement of air (from a high pressure zone to a low pressure zone) caused by the uneven heating of the Earth by the sun.
sport of racing large sailing vessels.