Native Village Youth and Education News
September 2009


Scientists Study Garbage Pile in Pacific
Condensed by Native Village

Researchers are studying the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a giant swath of open ocean that has become a floating garbage dump.

The Pacific Garbage Patch may cover an area once or twice the size of Texas, or about 262,000 - 524,000 square miles. It's located about 1,000 miles west of California and 1,000 miles north of Hawaii in an area called the North Pacific Gyre, where currents from the equator, North America and Asia swirl together and deposit trash, mostly plastic.

Sea garbage is a major threat. It smothers coral reefs and harms animals including the endangered Hawaiian monk seal.

"It's not like this is an island. It's not something you can walk on," said Holly Bamford from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "Sometimes you can cruise along for 10 nautical miles and not see anything and then, bam, you come to a hot spot" of visible trash."

"Small particles -- fingernail-size chips -- make up most of it," said Robert Knox from the University of California, San Diego.  Knox described the trash zone as a "stretched-out bull's-eye" that runs from east to west.

Scientists will investigate how much trash might be in the gyre, and how it affects sea life, particularly smaller animals. The will learn whether
zooplankton -- microscopic organisms that are a food source for bigger animals -- eat the plastics, and whether it is digestible or poisonous for them.

"Do pieces move species and introduce invasive species? What are the implications of the transport of species from Point A to B?" Knox said. "There's quite a web of scientific questions to be put together."
The answers could have major implications for the gyre, one of the Earth's largest ecosystems.

"The question is, how badly are we monkeying with the machinery by using the Pacific as our freebie landfill?" Knox asked.

 Scientists will also look at ways the trash could be removed and recycled. It could be turned into products like diesel fuel, building materials and clothing.

Bamford is eager to see what the researchers find.

"We find debris out there coming from all countries. It's an international problem," she said.

The northern Pacific isn't the only place with circulation vortexes where trash accumulates. There's another one in the South Pacific, two in the Atlantic and one in the southern Indian Ocean.

People can start taking steps right now to keep the problem from getting worse. During a 2008 waterway cleanup, Ocean Conservancy  volunteers retrieved 1,360,000,000 pounds of trash, mostly from inland waterways, in 104 countries. Trash that ends up in the ocean comes from hundreds of miles inland.

"The easiest thing to do to push back against this problem is for people to dispose of plastic properly," Knox said.  "Just don't chuck it out by the roadside, because it's going to go downhill and into the ocean."

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