South Pacific Plastic Gyre Discovered

Researchers announced last week that the South Pacific is home to a newly discovered “Garbage Patch.” The South Pacific gyre, a set of circular currents, contains a high concentration of plastic pollution, akin to the North Pacific’s Great Garbage Patch, discovered in 1997.

This study, conducted by 5Gyres Institute, examined samples of particles collected on a transect that crossed the South Pacific gyre, finding increased plastic abundance at the center. This is the first scientific evidence of a “garbage patch” in this gyre.

Plastic pollution has been shown to be widespread and it is believed that all of the world’s five gyres contain similar accumulations of trash.

Photo by Jason Karn via Flickr, Creative Commons License. 

The “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” was found by accident in the North Pacific by Captain Charles Moore. Its title is a misnomer – rather than a solid island-like mass of plastic pieces, the area is mostly characterized by open water full of tiny floating particles of broken down plastic. Though this “plastic soup” is not particularly noticeable to the naked eye, it has concentrations of plastic particles many times higher than areas outside the garbage patch, and it is at least as harmful to the environment as large pieces.

Like the North Pacific, the South Pacific is filled by a roughly circular pattern of currents that create a swirling center, called a gyre. Massive ocean gyres also exist in the North Atlantic, South Atlantic, and Indian Oceans. These systems can draw in things like trash and concentrate them in the middle.

Plastic pollution is a global problem – it has been documented in the remote Arctic and Southern Oceans as well – but gyres have the ability to accumulate a higher amount of garbage that will remain stuck in one place, at the center. Therefore, all five gyres are believed to hold higher amounts of plastic pollution. However, the North Pacific gyre is the only one to have been studied in detail for its plastic contamination levels.

Learn more about plastic pollution from “The Plastics Breakdown: An Infographic.”

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