About 1,000 miles north of Hawaii lies an aquatic area known as the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch," which stretches hundreds of miles across the Pacific Ocean and is riddled with tiny shreds of plastic. A new paper from the Scripps Oceanic Institution highlights a striking fact about the area: The amount of debris found within has increased 100-fold in the past 40 years, and is upsetting the ocean's delicate ecosystems in a number of surprising ways. Here, a brief guide to the Pacific Ocean's growing plastic problem:
Why is there so much plastic there?
The high concentration of plastic debris is the result of an enormous rotating ocean current called the North Pacific Gyre. The vortex of ocean water and wind sweep the plastic bits up and usher them to stiller waters, trapping them in what's infamously called the Garbage Patch.
What items does the plastic originate from?
Bottles, bags, and other discarded material. The plastic pieces that don't sink to the bottom are often broken down by sunlight and waves, which "degrade and shred the material over time into pieces the size of a fingernail, or smaller," says Jonathan Amos at BBC News. These tiny bits are causing the Garbage Patch to grow not in size, but in density, says Paul Rogers at Mercury News. Now, there are "roughly 100 times more pieces per cubic meter of water than there were in samples during the 1970s."
How did researchers figure that out?
Scientists who completed a 2009 expedition took water samples 1,000 miles west of California, then compared the amount of plastic they found to data collected in 1972. "We were really surprised. [100 times] is a very large increase," says Miriam Goldstein, a Ph.D graduate student and lead author of the study, which was published in the journal Biology Letters. "The fact that it has gotten so much worse is really disappointing."
How does the debris affect sea animals?
Fish, turtles, and other creatures oftentimes mistake the plastic scraps for food. In fact, a separate Scripps report suggests that as many as 1 in 10 fish end up with plastic bits in their stomachs. Overall, fish in the North Pacific Ocean region are estimated to ingest anywhere from 12,000 to 24,000 tons each year.
What are some other issues?
Populations of a marine insect called Halobates sericeus — more widely recognized as "sea skaters" or "water striders" — are booming. Researchers think this is because the plastic gives the insects another place to lay their eggs. The problem is that these bugs feast on plankton and fish larvae, and an explosion in the sea skater population could mean less food for other animals, upsetting the ocean's natural food web.
Can the Garbage Patch be cleaned up?
It would be "virtually impossible," says the Mercury News' Rogers, given the Garbage Patch's vast scale. But this study is "expected to ramp up calls for more cities and states to ban plastic bags and plastic foam packaging." In California, for example, 14 billion plastic bags are distributed annually, but only 3 percent are actually recycled. Now, prevention is the most critical step, says Goldstein. "Once a piece of plastic is in the ocean, it is really hard and expensive to get it out."