A trip to the garbage patch

Scientists bring back debris samples from the North Pacific subtropical convergence zone

Scientists are talking trash after returning from a 20-day expedition to an oceanic garbage patch some thousand miles off the California coast. Debris is thought to accumulate in the region, known as the North Pacific subtropical convergence zone, thanks to winds and the flow of four major oceanic currents. Scientists are concerned about the debris’ potential effects on marine life.

TRASHY SAMPLE Scientists deploy a manta net to sample surface waters in the north Pacific Ocean (left). The team also encountered masses of debris, such as this net tangled with rope, plastic and various marine creatures. Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego

LIVING ON PLASTIC Fish larvae grow on this large piece of plastic, found on day four of the expedition. Researchers will analyze the collected detritus to determine effects on marine life. Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego

To determine the scope of the problem, a team of researchers from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego took a 1,360-mile journey to survey marine litter and life in a corner of the patch.

“We did observe a lot of plastic,” Miriam Goldstein, chief scientist of the Scripps Environmental Accumulation of Plastic Expedition, said at a press conference August 27. Though the site is a thousand miles from anything, thumbnail-sized pieces of plastic made up most of the collected debris.

Now that the researchers have brought in the trash, they plan to probe the potential impacts of this debris. Marine ecologists, geochemists, material scientists and other “-ists” will try to understand how the debris affects critters such as plankton, fish and birds. They also hope to learn how the junk is distributed in the water column and whether the floating plastics transport pollutants and invasive species. “We have a lot of work to do before we can say what the impact is on marine life,” Goldstein said.

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