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Plastic pollution pop quiz

May 18, 2011

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 and a sample from the open ocean*. 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.

A graphic by Nikolai Maximenko showing the ocean's five gyres, where most of the trash in the ocean accumulates

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!

Note: This post was originally published on the Scientific American Expeditions blog.

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