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An inside look at the science of cleaning up and fixing the mess of marine pollution


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Where Are the Pacific Garbage Patches Located?

Microplastics in sand.

Microplastics, small plastics less than 5 millimeters long, are an increasingly common type of marine debris found in the water column (including the “garbage patches”) and on shorelines around the world. Based on research to date, most commonly used plastics do not fully degrade in the ocean and instead break down into smaller and smaller pieces. (NOAA Marine Debris Program)

The Pacific Ocean is massive. It’s the world’s largest and deepest ocean, and if you gathered up all of the Earth’s continents, these land masses would fit into the Pacific basin with a space the size of Africa to spare.

While the Pacific Ocean holds more than half of the planet’s free water, it also unfortunately holds a lot of the planet’s garbage (much of it plastic). But that trash isn’t spread evenly across the Pacific Ocean; a great deal of it ends up suspended in what are commonly referred to as “garbage patches.”

A combination of oceanic and atmospheric forces causes trash, free-floating sea life (for example, algae, plankton, and seaweed), and a variety of other things to collect in concentrations in certain parts of the ocean. In the Pacific Ocean, there are actually a few “Pacific garbage patches” of varying sizes as well as other locations where marine debris is known to accumulate.

The Eastern Pacific Garbage Patch (aka “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”)

In most cases when people talk about the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” they are referring to the Eastern Pacific garbage patch. This is located in a constantly moving and changing swirl of water roughly midway between Hawaii and California, in an atmospheric area known as the North Pacific Subtropical High.

NOAA National Weather Service meteorologist Ted Buehner describes the North Pacific High as involving “a broad area of sinking air resulting in higher atmospheric pressure, drier warmer temperatures and generally fair weather (as a result of the sinking air).”

This high pressure area remains in a semi-permanent state, affecting the movement of the ocean below. “Winds with high pressure tend to be light(er) and blow clockwise in the northern hemisphere out over the open ocean,” according to Buehner.

As a result, plastic and other debris floating at sea tend to get swept into the calm inner area of the North Pacific High, where the debris becomes trapped by oceanic and atmospheric forces and builds up at higher concentrations than surrounding waters. Over time, this has earned the area the nickname “garbage patch”—although the exact content, size, and location of the associated marine debris accumulations are still difficult to pin down.

Map of ocean currents, features, and areas of marine debris accumulation (including

This map is an oversimplification of ocean currents, features, and areas of marine debris accumulation (including “garbage patches”) in the Pacific Ocean. There are numerous factors that affect the location, size, and strength of all of these features throughout the year, including seasonality and El Nino/La Nina. (NOAA Marine Debris Program)

The Western Pacific Garbage Patch

On the opposite side of the Pacific Ocean, there is another so-called “garbage patch,” or area of marine debris buildup, off the southeast coast of Japan. This is the lesser known and studied, Western Pacific garbage patch. Southeast of the Kuroshio Extension (ocean current), researchers believe that this garbage patch is a small “recirculation gyre,” an area of clockwise-rotating water, much like an ocean eddy (Howell et al., 2012).

North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone

While not called a “garbage patch,” the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone is another place in the Pacific Ocean where researchers have documented concentrations of marine debris. A combination of oceanic and atmospheric forces create this convergence zone, which is positioned north of the Hawaiian Islands but moves seasonally and dips even farther south toward Hawaii during El Niño years (Morishige et al., 2007, Pichel et al., 2007). The North Pacific Convergence Zone is an area where many open-water marine species live, feed, or migrate and where debris has been known to accumulate (Young et al. 2009). Hawaii’s islands and atolls end up catching a notable amount of marine debris as a result of this zone dipping southward closer to the archipelago (Donohue et al. 2001, Pichel et al., 2007).

But the Pacific Ocean isn’t the only ocean with marine debris troubles. Trash from humans is found in every ocean, from the Arctic (Bergmann and Klages, 2012) to the Antarctic (Eriksson et al., 2013), and similar oceanic processes form high-concentration areas where debris gathers in the Atlantic Ocean and elsewhere.

You can help keep trash from becoming marine debris by:

Carey Morishige, Pacific Islands regional coordinator for the NOAA Marine Debris Program, also contributed to this post.

Literature Cited

Bergmann, M. and M. Klages. 2012. Increase of litter at the Arctic deep-sea observatory HAUSGARTEN. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 64: 2734-2741.

Donohue, M.J., R.C. Boland, C.M. Sramek, and G.A Antonelis. 2001. Derelict fishing gear in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands: diving surveys and debris removal in 1999 confirm threat to coral reef ecosystems. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 42 (12): 1301-1312.

Eriksson, C., H. Burton, S. Fitch, M. Schulz, and J. van den Hoff. 2013. Daily accumulation rates of marine debris on sub-Antarctic island beaches. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 66: 199-208.

Howell, E., S. Bograd, C. Morishige, M. Seki, and J. Polovina. 2012. On North Pacific circulation and associated marine debris concentration. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 65: 16-22.

Morishige, C., M. Donohue, E. Flint, C. Swenson, and C. Woolaway. 2007. Factors affecting marine debris deposition at French Frigate Shoals, Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument, 1990-2002. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 54: 1162-1169.

Pichel, W.G., J.H. Churnside, T.S. Veenstra, D.G. Foley, K.S. Friedman, R.E. Brainard, J.B. Nicoll, Q. Zheng and P. Clement-Colon. 2007. Marine debris collects within the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone [PDF]. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 54: 1207-1211.

Young L. C., C. Vanderlip, D. C. Duffy, V. Afanasyev, and S. A. Shaffer. 2009. Bringing home the trash: do colony-based differences in foraging distribution lead to increased plastic ingestion in Laysan albatrosses? PLoS ONE 4 (10).


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Art Can Transform Plastic Pollution into Ocean Conservation

This is a guest post by artist-activist Pam Longobardi and naturalist-photographer Wayne Sentman, originally posted on NOAA’s Marine Debris Blog.

Pam Longobardi’s art installation made from marine debris.

Pam Longobardi’s art piece “Consumption Driftweb,” made from marine debris, in OCEANOMANIA at Nouveau Musée National de Monaco, 2011. Credit: Pam Longobardi.

Art can be premonitory; it can be seen as a red flag or a warning as sensitive artists notice and respond to change and impactful events. More and more artists around the world are responding to the degradation of our ocean systems by human-made plastic pollution. Art created from this material is increasingly being used as a mechanism of environmental education, helping to create an emotional connection to the problem among the viewing public, utilizing marine debris as a material to create awareness among multiple communities.

Creative artists now play a role in both interpreting this environmental challenge to the public and helping to inspire creative solutions to what at times seems like an unsolvable problem. Public art installations can help create a new public consciousness that promotes pro-environmental attitudes and behaviors.

Dead albatross with stomach full of plastic litter.

Laysan albatross carcass with ingested plastic debris. Credit: C. Fackler, NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.

On Midway Atoll, a remote National Wildlife Refuge in the North Pacific, Wayne has witnessed the effects of plastic marine pollution firsthand for many years. Albatross chicks’ decaying carcasses have filled viewers with a sense of “culpable ignorance.” Seeing these decayed bodies laden with plastic where their stomachs would be reminds us that we are connected to the natural world. That plastic toothbrush that we threw out, those bottle caps that we walk past on the street, and the multitude of plastic that we have not recycled ends up where we least expect it.

Over the years artists have been the messengers of the “un-natural” history of this problem so easily viewed in the field at Midway Atoll. The albatross at Midway are a harbinger of the amount of plastic in the ocean since they happen to feed along one of the largest concentrations of marine debris in the North Pacific. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service researchers have estimated that each year at least 5 tons of plastic marine debris is brought to (landfilled at) Midway Atoll by albatross regurgitating to their young. Recent studies indicate that marine plastic pollution is also ending up in fish from these same areas and is now integrated into the marine food chain.

Additionally, artists are starting to work collaboratively with scientists and activists to create a synergistic, multi-disciplinary approach to raising public awareness and defining positive actions that can be undertaken to address the issue. The United Nations Environmental Program and NOAA co-sponsored the 5th International Marine Debris Conference in Honolulu, Hawaii, and the conference was a model of this type of relationship.

The unique thing about this conference was the enormous presence of art at what was basically a scientific conference. UNEP and NOAA invited us to put together the art program, and we were able to raise enough funds to hold a professional fine art exhibition within the conference. Pam also put together a digital stream of nearly 40 other artists from around the world working with this issue. The overwhelming response by artists all over the world to her call for artwork was in itself a wonderful and heartening experience.

The conference brought together the plastics industry, scientists, artists, and activists like Surfrider Foundation and Plastics Pollution Coalition—people from all over the world (440 people from 36 countries). Many of these stakeholders are on opposite sides of the issue, but the conference managed to provide a forum that brought everyone to the table. What resulted was the Honolulu Commitment, which we see as the “Kyoto Protocol of plastic.” The artist/activist contingent worked very hard to get specific language about micro-plastics, endocrine disruptors, and heavy metal contamination into the document that all parties agreed to. It felt momentous.

Pam is also working on a project with the Alaska SeaLife Center [leaves this blog] and the Anchorage Museum to send an expedition of artists and scientists to the remote stretch of the Aleutian Islands off Alaska that form the northern rim of the North Pacific Gyre. We had our first planning meeting of all the partners in June and filmed a promotional video that involved a beach landing in Resurrection Bay, with Carl Safina and Pam surveying what was found there. This project is very large scale and still over a year away from being initiated, but Pam and Howard Ferren, Director of Conservation at the Alaska SeaLife Center, have already been working on it for over a year, and it continues to evolve and take shape.

Few people are able to visit remote places such as Midway Atoll or the Aleutian Islands. Art can serve as the bridge to these wildlife populations and the environmental issues that could only otherwise be appreciated through firsthand field experience. When professional artists from around the globe begin to explore the topic of marine debris, the public is made aware that this problem is not simply limited to a remote island group but is global in scale and therefore we all are connected to, and part of, the problem. Once a viewer appreciates this connection, discovered through viewing art, they may become engaged with the marine environment and more invested in finding solutions to reducing marine pollution sources.

Art is a powerful way to increase public participation and awareness of the problems of marine debris by showcasing it in an educational yet judgment-neutral manner across a diverse stakeholder base. When students and community members view and interact with items of collected marine debris in large-scale works of art, the intimacy with the items will facilitate an understanding of individual connectedness to this problem. Art can showcase the problem, helping individuals to become motivated to contribute to solutions without assigning blame to other segments of the community.

–Pam Longobardi and Wayne Sentman

About the guest bloggers:

Pam Longobardi.

Pam Longobardi.

“The first time I came face to face with enormous piles of plastic debris on South Point of the Big Island in 2006, I was amazed at the beautiful colors against the black lava beach, because that’s what plastic does, it charms and seduces us. Then I got closer and I could see what it all was, it was all our JUNK, and it just hit me like a thunderbolt. There was even a toilet seat among the piles, and it was such a sick sad metaphor for how we treat the earth. It changed me right then and there, and I began gathering it up and cleaning beaches, to drag it back and show it, to put it in front of people so we can see what the material legacy of the human race has become. This was the start of the Drifters Project.

Wayne Sentman.

Wayne Sentman.

As an artist, I have always dealt with trying to understand the psychological relationship between humans and nature. We are in a kind of dualistic isolation from it, at once an integral part of it and yet somehow outside of it. I am interested in the idea of the positioning of the ego in an attempt to locate the self amidst the incomprehensibility of the external natural world at large. Culture functions as a way to try to navigate or map this territory.”  –Pam Longobardi

After many years working in remote field locations around the globe, where I witnessed the impacts on wildlife related to marine pollution, I have become very interested in the value of art as a way to interpret “hidden” environmental issues to the public. Art has the power to facilitate an understanding of an individual’s connectedness to this problem. –Wayne Sentman

The NOAA Marine Debris Program, one of three divisions within the Office of Response and Restoration, serves as a centralized program within NOAA, coordinating, strengthening, and promoting marine debris activities within the agency and among its partners and the public.