What is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?

The "Great Pacific Garbage Patch" is the popular name for an area in the North Pacific Ocean, between Hawaii and California, containing a high concentration of marine debris.

Most of the debris in the

Most of the debris in the "Garbage Patch" is thought to be small plastic pieces, not always visible to the naked eye. North Pacific Ocean Gyre collections from Scripps Institution of Oceanography scientists in August of 2009 revealed small jellyfish (Velella velella) with lots of plastic. Image courtesy of J. Leichter, Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Download image (jpg, 105 KB).

In the North Pacific Ocean churns an area of marine debris, where the pattern of currents has helped to concentrate debris into what is known as the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch.” Wind and waves continuously mix this debris, dispersing it over huge surface areas and throughout the top portion of the water column.

The term “garbage patch” is a bit misleading, making it sound like this is a large, continuous island of visible trash such as bottles and tires floating in the ocean. Instead, the debris is spread across the surface of the water and from the surface all the way to the ocean floor, and most of the debris in the “patch” is thought to be small plastic pieces, not always visible to the naked eye. The area thought to contain the most plastic is a thousand miles from land and you can’t see it from space or an aircraft. Therefore, the only way to get there and to study the area and deploy scientific instrumentation is to use research vessels, such as NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer.

The exact size of the Garbage Patch is hard to pin down because so few oceanographic cruises have crossed this area with an objective to systematically sample plastics. Also, ocean features are a moving target and the borders and content of the area constantly change with ocean currents and wind.

Regardless of how big it is or where it is located, it is clear that the Pacific Garbage Patch does not belong in our ocean and we need to learn more about this feature so that we can properly address it.