Journey to the Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch

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Recent research on global ocean warming and ocean acidification is showing that human activities are penetrating the marine environment, but the severity of the impacts can be masked by the enormity of the seas.

A new, rising threat of unknown magnitude has begun to capture the attention of scientists as well as the public. Plastic material and other human-produced trash is thought be accumulating at a gathering point of swirling oceanic currents in the North Pacific Ocean at a gyre known colloquially as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Just how much the human-produced plastic and other debris are impacting the North Pacific Gyre, roughly a thousand miles off California’s coast, has been speculated in recent news reports and other media. Scientifically, very little is known about the size of the problem and threats to marine life and the gyre’s biological environment.

From August 2 to 21, Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, with support from the UC Ship Funds and Project Kaisei, is dedicating a scientific mission to explore and analyze the problem of plastic in the North Pacific Ocean Gyre. The graduate student-led Scripps Environmental Accumulation of Plastic Expedition (SEAPLEX) aboard the Scripps research vessel New Horizon will explore threats from several angles, with research that includes surveys of plastic distribution, investigations of floating plastic, and assessments of impacts on sea life.

“During the SEAPLEX cruise we are going to try to target the highest plastic areas we see to begin to understand the scope of the problem,” said Miriam Goldstein, chief scientist of the expedition. “The team of graduate students will be studying everything from phytoplankton to zooplankton to small midwater fish.”

After hearing about the plastic problem in the North Pacific Ocean gyre at a Scripps seminar, Goldstein and her graduate student colleagues mounted a successful campaign for the highly valuable UC Ship Funds award. The graduate student team developed the scientific plan for the expedition and is undertaking all of the research during the cruise. The science team will share their experiences through regular Tweets and blogs from sea.

Scripps scientists also are becoming interested in a gyre in the Southern Pacific Ocean, much less known than its northern counterpart, which also may be a repository of plastics and trash.

—Mario C. Aguilera

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