A study in March of 2018 revealed that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP), the world’s largest collection of ocean garbage, has grown to more than 600,000 square miles. That’s twice the size of Texas, or three times the size of France. The mass weighs 88,000 tons, a number which is 16 times higher than previous estimations indicated. The trash in the patch originates from around the Pacific Rim, including nations in Asia and North and South America.
The title of “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” is deceiving; contrary to popular belief, the GPGP is not one large and continuous mass of easily visible marine debris that can be identified from a satellite. Higher concentrations of trash can be found in the GPGP, but much of the debris is made up of small pieces of floating plastic not immediately evident to the human eye. This debris is dispersed over a large expanse of area, and throughout the top portion of the water column.
The GPGP is devastating for marine life. Much of the plastic has deteriorated into micro-plastics as a result of sun exposure, waves, marine life, and temperature changes. Once they break down to this small size, micro-plastics are difficult to remove. Micro-plastics make up 8% of the total mass of the GPGP, but 94% of the estimated 1.8 trillion pieces of garbage floating in the area. They are often mistaken for food by marine animals, resulting in malnutrition and serious threats to the animals’ behavior, health, and existence.
There are serious consequences for human beings and our economy as a result of the GPGP. Through a process called bio-accumulation, chemicals found in plastics will enter the body of the animal that feeds on it, which will consequently be passed to humans as they eat the animal. Through this process, micro-plastics can enter the food chain. The pollutants they contain become more concentrated as they work their way up the chain to top level predators such as sharks, seals and polar bears. According to the United Nations, the approximate environmental damage caused by plastic to marine ecosystems represents $13 billion.
Watch the video below to hear Judith Weis, author of Marine Pollution: What Everyone Needs to Know take a look at one of the major culprits behind marine pollution: microfibers and micro plastics.
The Pacific Ocean has faced other difficulties this year as well. In 2018 the eastern Pacific Ocean saw its most active hurricane season on record. The season started on May 15, and has had three Category 5 hurricanes east of the international date line. This is only the third eastern Pacific season to have three Category 5’s. Meteorologists measure the intensity and duration of all the storms that form with a metric Accumulated Cyclone Energy (ACE). The average season-to-date ACE for late October is 125.7 units; as of October 23, the storms had created 311 units, more than two and half times the expectation. Of the dozen hurricanes in the eastern Pacific, 83 percent rapidly intensified at some point, an increase from the historical average of 79 percent. The most drastic change of any of the storms was in late August when Hurricane Norman’s peak winds increased 80 mph in only 24 hours. In under 48 hours, Hurricane Willa went from a low-end tropical storm to a Category 5. These hurricanes impacted areas such as Hawaii, Mexico, and the Southwestern United States.
Interested in learning more? Check out the following titles: A Farewell to Ice: A Report From the Arctic, Oceans: a Very Short Introduction, and from the What Everyone Needs to Know® series: Climate Change, Marine Pollution, and Environmental Protection.
Featured image credit: “beach-pacific-coastline-ocean-coast” by RogerMosley. CC0 via Pixabay.