So, you’ve all probably seen the impressive media-whirlwind about the Atlantic “garbage patch.” I did a Google News search and there are 192 articles and blogs about it! This will make 193! I thought we should weigh-in on the discussions with our “geeky 2-cents” (sort of speak) :).
First of all, I have to start by pointing out that while the name “garbage patch” is VERY catchy (as are the dozens of other names these concentrations of oceanic marine debris have been called) it’s a bit of a misnomer depending on what your mind conjures up when you hear the term “patch.” In none of these areas (Pacific eastern and western patches or Atlantic patch) is there a “blanket” of trash so thick you could walk on it, or as a friend and colleague of mine puts it, debris “soup” so dense that if you dipped your hand in it you’d take it out coated in plastic bits.
This then brings up the age-old question of “So, can you see it?” (i.e., are there satellite photos of it? aerial photos? photos from a ship?) In fact, just today photos of the Atlantic patch were posted in the Huffington Post. Check them out! You will see and understand better, I think, the patches. This, of course, is not to say that there aren’t larger pieces of debris in our oceans – far from it! BUT, it gives you a better idea of what researchers and others studying these patches are talking about.
Here are a few of our photos (from the Chesapeake Bay…Chesapeake Bay garbage patch? No :).):
Close up of debris in the trawl sample.
Assorted other debris that came up in trawl samples that day (does not include the NOAA ruler!).
Much of the research on the movement and concentration of marine debris has focused on the Pacific Ocean, possibly because these mechanisms lead to the accumulation, and thus impacts, of marine debris across the Hawaiian Archipelago (including the sensitive and pristine ecosystems of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument). Ergo, nothing much heard about the Atlantic. This is not to say that marine debris in the Atlantic Ocean is not important.
There has been research conducted and published on marine debris in the Atlantic, mainly on ingestion in Atlantic species of sea turtles and seabirds or on nearshore trawls for plastic particles. There have also been anecdotal reports and studies (e.g., Sea Education Association) of debris concentrations in the Atlantic in areas such as the Sargasso Sea.
Much like in the Pacific, there is a North Atlantic Subtropical Gyre made up of four major currents – North Equatorial, Gulf Stream, North Atlantic, and Canary Current. There is also a North Atlantic Subtropical Convergence Zone (STCZ). It’s Pacific sister is a known area of marine debris concentration and is in fact one of the mechanisms of debris deposition in the Hawaiian Islands. While the N. Atlantic STCZ has been predicted to concentrate debris you really won’t find any peer-reviewed published research on it – yet! Similarly, there are areas of oceanic convergence and eddies (areas that in the Pacific concentrate debris – e.g., western garbage patch) in the Atlantic.
This surge in attention to the Atlantic and marine debris in general is great! There have been a few “expeditions” to find debris in the Atlantic and sampling cruises continue. All of it to help us better understand the “nature of the beast” in the Atlantic and thus be able to attack it as effectively as possible.