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The South Pacific Islands Survey–Pop Quiz

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Alright, let’s see how well you do on this quick test. Can you guess which sample came from the North Pacific Garbage Patch and which came from the South Pacific Ocean? Pretty obvious, isn’t it?

I juxtaposed these photos so you could see the difference between a water sample from inside a gyre (right) and a sample from the open ocean (left)*. A gyre, a whirlpool-like collection of swirling currents, can concentrate an enormous amount of debris and scientists from organizations like NOAA, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, the Algalita Marine Research Foundation and 5 Gyres are still trying to figure out if there’s twice as much plastic in a gyre, five times as much or even more.

Captain Charles Moore, who’s become the unofficial spokesperson for the North Pacific Garbage Patch, famously sampled an area between California and Hawaii where he found six times as much plastic as plankton by weight during the late 1990s.

And Nikolai Maximenko, a senior researcher at the International Pacific Research Center at the University of Hawaii, Honolulu, has produced a graphic showing where garbage collects in the ocean. His model has allowed scientists to pinpoint exact locations to sample and some of these samples have made their way around the world as educational groups like Algalita and 5 Gyres give samples to schools and community groups.

So that’s the post for today; I have to sign off because we’re almost in Rarotonga! We’ve picked up speed and should arrive in the next 15 hours. Once we’re in the Cook Islands we’ll be looking at bleached coral and sulfur and nitrate levels in lagoons located near pig farms and septic tanks. More to come soon!

*What’s even more astonishing about these photos is that the sample on the left is the result of a seven-hour trawl and the sample on the right is from an hour-long trawl!

Image credits: Photos 1 and 2: Lindsey Hoshaw; Image 3: graphic by Nikolai Maximenko

About the Author: Lindsey Hoshaw is a freelance environmental journalist. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, the Boston Globe and Forbes, among others. In her spare time she moonlights as a garbologist studying people and the things they throw away. Follow her on Twitter @thegarbagegirl.

Editor’s note: The South Pacific Islands Survey is part of a larger multiyear expedition run by Pangaea Exploration, a nonprofit that investigates the health of marine life through exploration, conservation and educational outreach. The expedition focuses on marine debris, water quality, habitat conditions and overfishing in the world’s oceans. Specific emphasis is placed on the five gyres, or the five areas with the highest accumulation of plastic pollution.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Bora Zivkovic 8:40 pm 05/17/2011

    Looking at the map got me thinking…

    Most of the media attention – and presumably research – was on the North Pacific Gyre. Then some on the North Atlantic one.

    But according to the map, it is the South Pacific Gyre that seems to have the greatest density or quantity of material (what does the color represent, what kind of measure?).

    So, I am wondering how much research was done in the three southern gyres? Did anyone do any kind of qualitative or quantitative comparison between all five? For example, how do they differ in source and type of plastic, quantity and density, depth, particle size, total area covered, etc. Any idea if such literature exists?

    Link to this
  2. 2. Lindsey.Hoshaw 12:44 am 05/20/2011

    Hi Bora,

    Great questions! The red areas in the center of the gyres represent the highest concentrations of debris. I should note that this graphic is a model. Nikolai Maximenko wanted to see what would happen if one piece of plastic in each square mile of ocean traveled around the world for ten years. This graphic is the result of that analysis, which is not perfect by any means since there is obviously more trash in some areas and less in others to begin with. Couple this with the fact that container spills and hurricanes change the amount of trash unintentionally emptied into the water and you can see how this model is more of a diagram for how currents operate than an infallible picture of plastic in the ocean.

    But 5 Gyres, a non-profit that investigates trash in the ocean, recently confirmed that there is plastic in every gyre after they completed an 18-month around the world survey. They found plastic debris (mainly tiny plastic fragments) in the North Atlantic Gyre, the South Pacific Gyre, the South Atlantic Gyre and the Indian Ocean Gyre (they had already done research in the North Pacific Gyre). They have not yet analyzed samples from the voyage but will process the three Southern Hemisphere gyre samples by the end of the year, and will include a description and comparison between the gyres. Previous research on plastic in the ocean is quite outdated and 5 Gyres’ analysis of 300 trawl samples collected during their 25,000 mile journey will provide valuable insight into where our trash ends up. More information about their work can be found here:

    You are right that most of the media attention has been on the North Pacific Gyre. There are two reasons for this. First, the route from Hawaii to California (which directly crosses the North Pacific Gyre) is a popular sailing route and thus, more people see the trash here. Second, Captain Charles Moore has brought a significant amount of attention to marine debris and his experience is all in the North Pacific. He actually discovered the North Pacific Garbage Patch on his way back from a sailing race in Hawaii during the summer of 1997.

    I hope that answers your questions!


    Link to this

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