Scientists Report Back From Garbage Patch

Scripps Institution researchers on three-week expedition to Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Scientists from UCSD have made their way to the Northern Pacific to explore a blob of degraded plastic that is reportedly the size of Texas or bigger.

The researchers from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography have been out to sea for 11 days on their mission to the North Pacific Ocean Gyre -- a large spinning area of water 1,000 miles off California that took five days to reach -- and what has been dubbed the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. "The debris ... has the potential to damage marine life and alter the biological environment," according to UCSD scientists.

The crew from San Diego aboard the New Horizon research vessel is taking part in the the Scripps Environmental Accumulation of Plastic Expedition (SEAPLEX). To date, there is little scientific information about the extent and makeup of the garbage patch, however, so the doctoral students and research volunteers are trying to determine how much plastic has accumulated, how fast it is growing and the effect this "new and pressing environmental problem," as they describe it, will have on the ocean and its inhabitants.

Using dip and bongo nets, the Oozeki trawl -- a large enclosed net requiring several crew members to deploy -- and other equipment, the scientists have conducting intensive sampling for days.

"We have now traveled just over 1,000 km (620 miles) due west of the first station where we found plastic pieces in the surface manta tows," writes James Leichter, an associate professor at Scripps, on the SEAPLEX blog. "We have now found plastic in every tow, 28 out of 28 manta tows since the one on Aug. 6, when the first pieces were found. While the large pieces of debris that are recognizable from the ship -- things like detergent bottles, milk crates, toothbrushes -- appear relatively spread out, when we collect samples  from the surface layer using the manta nets, there appears to be a nearly continuous stream of small particles."

The plastic in the area is not all on the surface, either. Meg Rippy, who's also aboard the New Horizon, reported on Tuesday that she filtered some seawater from 689 deep that contained what appeared to by small pieces of blue-green plastic. It's unclear whether marine organisms brought the plastic down with them or whether the plastic sank.

The scientists will spend nearly three weeks conducting their exploration of the gyre.

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