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The Great Pacific garbage patch, also described as the Pacific trash vortex, is a gyre of marine debris particles in the central North Pacific Ocean located roughly between 135°W to 155°W and 35°N and 42°N. The patch extends over an indeterminate area, with estimates ranging very widely depending on the degree of plastic concentration used to define the affected area. The patch is not easily visible, because it consists of very small pieces that are almost invisible to the naked eye. Most of its contents are suspended beneath the surface of the ocean.
The patch is characterized by exceptionally high relative concentrations of pelagic plastics, chemical sludge and other debris that have been trapped by the currents of the North Pacific Gyre.
The Great Pacific garbage patch was predicted in a 1988 paper published by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) of the United States. The prediction was based on results obtained by several Alaska-based researchers between 1985 and 1988 that measured neustonic plastic in the North Pacific Ocean. This research found high concentrations of marine debris accumulating in regions governed by ocean currents.
Extrapolating from findings in the Sea of Japan, the researchers hypothesized that similar conditions would occur in other parts of the Pacific where prevailing currents were favorable to the creation of relatively stable waters. They specifically indicated the North Pacific Gyre.
A similar patch of floating plastic debris is found in the Atlantic Ocean, called the North Atlantic garbage patch.
It is thought that, like other areas of concentrated marine debris in the world's oceans, the Great Pacific garbage patch formed gradually as a result of ocean or marine pollution gathered by oceanic currents. The garbage patch occupies a large and relatively stationary region of the North Pacific Ocean bound by the North Pacific Gyre (a remote area commonly referred to as the horse latitudes). The gyre's rotational pattern draws in waste material from across the North Pacific Ocean, including coastal waters off North America and Japan. As material is captured in the currents, wind-driven surface currents gradually move floating debris toward the center, trapping it in the region.
- Some of these long-lasting plastics end up in the stomachs of marine birds and animals, and their young, including sea turtles and the Black-footed Albatross. Midway Atoll receives substantial amounts of marine debris from the patch. Of the 1.5 million Laysan Albatrosses that inhabit Midway, nearly all are found to have plastic in their digestive system. Approximately one-third of their chicks die, and many of those deaths are due to being fed plastic from their parents. Twenty tons of plastic debris washes up on Midway every year with five tons of that debris being fed to Albatross chicks.
- Besides the particles' danger to wildlife, on the microscopic level the floating debris can absorb organic pollutants from seawater, including PCBs, DDT, and PAHs. Aside from toxic effects, when ingested, some of these are mistaken by the endocrine system as estradiol, causing hormone disruption in the affected animal. These toxin-containing plastic pieces are also eaten by jellyfish, which are then eaten by larger fish.
- Many of these fish are then consumed by humans, resulting in their ingestion of toxic chemicals.
- Marine plastics also facilitate the spread of invasive species that attach to floating plastic in one region and drift long distances to colonize other ecosystems.
- On the macroscopic level, the physical size of the plastic kills fish, birds and turtles as the animals' digestion can not break down the plastic that is taking up space inside their stomachs. A second effect of the macroscopic plastic is to make it much more difficult for animals to detect their normal sources of food. While eating their normal source of food plastic ingestion can be unavoidable.
- Research has shown that this plastic marine debris affects at least 267 species worldwide and a few of the 267 species reside in the North Pacific Gyre.