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Giant Garbage Patch in the North Pacific is home to an abundance of life

In a recent study published in the open access journal PLOS Biology, researchers from Georgetown University have shed light on the thriving ecosystem that exists within the North Pacific “Garbage Patch.” 

This region, infamous for the enormous amounts of plastic waste it holds, also serves as a habitat for a variety of floating sea creatures.

The world’s oceans consist of five primary gyres, which are vast vortexes of water formed by converging ocean currents. The largest of these is the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre (NPSG), also known as the North Pacific “Garbage Patch” due to the accumulation of plastic waste brought together by the ocean currents. 

While the plastic waste in this region is well-documented, little is known about the floating ocean creatures inhabiting the area, such as jellyfish (cnidarians), snails, barnacles, and crustaceans, that may use these currents for transportation.

How the study was done

To investigate these lifeforms, the researchers made use of an 80-day long-distance swim through the NPSG in 2019, during which they asked the accompanying sailing crew to collect samples of surface sea creatures and plastic waste. 

The expedition’s route was determined using computer simulations of ocean surface currents to predict areas with high concentrations of marine debris.

Throughout the journey, the team collected daily samples of floating life and waste in the eastern NPSG. Their findings revealed a higher abundance of sea creatures within the NPSG compared to its periphery. 

Additionally, they identified a positive correlation between the presence of plastic waste and the abundance of three groups of floating sea creatures: sea rafts (Velella sp), blue sea buttons (Porpita sp), and violet sea snails (Janthina sp).

According to the study’s authors, the same ocean currents that concentrate plastic waste in the gyres might play a crucial role in the life cycles of these floating marine organisms. These currents could bring these creatures together for feeding and mating purposes. 

However, human activities may have detrimental effects on these high sea meeting grounds and the wildlife that relies on them.

Rebecca Helm, the study’s lead author, emphasizes that the Garbage Patch is more than just a mass of waste. “It is an ecosystem, not because of the plastic, but in spite of it.” 

This research highlights the need to understand and protect these unique ocean ecosystems, which are adversely impacted by human-generated waste.

More about the Garbage Patch

The Garbage Patch refers to areas in the world’s oceans where large concentrations of plastic waste and debris accumulate due to ocean currents. These regions are formed by oceanic gyres, which are large systems of rotating ocean currents. 

The most well-known of these is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, located in the North Pacific Ocean, but there are actually five major garbage patches around the world. They correspond to the five primary oceanic gyres:

  1. North Pacific Subtropical Gyre (Great Pacific Garbage Patch)
  2. South Pacific Subtropical Gyre
  3. North Atlantic Subtropical Gyre
  4. South Atlantic Subtropical Gyre
  5. Indian Ocean Subtropical Gyre

These garbage patches are created when converging ocean currents move and concentrate floating debris, including plastic waste, into specific areas. The accumulation of plastic waste in these patches poses significant environmental and ecological risks. 

Plastic does not biodegrade but instead breaks down into smaller pieces called microplastics, which can be ingested by marine life, potentially harming them and entering the food chain.

How big is the Garbage Patch?

While the term “Garbage Patch” may conjure images of a large, solid island of trash, the reality is different. The waste is dispersed throughout the water column and often not visible from the surface, making it difficult to measure the exact size of these patches. 

Some estimates suggest the Great Pacific Garbage Patch could be anywhere from the size of Texas to twice the size of the continental United States.

What can be done about the Garbage Patch?

Efforts to clean up and reduce the plastic waste in these garbage patches are ongoing. Solutions include reducing plastic production and consumption on land, improving waste management systems, and employing technologies to remove plastic from the ocean. 

One such initiative is The Ocean Cleanup project, which aims to develop advanced technologies to remove plastic pollution from the world’s oceans.

Recent research has also discovered that these garbage patches are not just home to plastic waste but also serve as habitats for various floating marine organisms. 

This highlights the need for a better understanding of the complex ecosystems that exist within these patches and the potential impact of human-generated waste on marine life.


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