The North Pacific Gyre: 100 Million Tons of Garbage and Growing

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Plastic Garbage Mass in North PacificPhoto:
Plastic Garbage Mass in North Pacific Gyre
Graphic art – GOOD

The Great Pacific Garbage Dump is Discovered

In 1997, American Charles Moore was sailing his yacht back to California after participating in the Los Angeles to Hawaii yacht race. He chose a short cut usually avoided by sailors and entered the North Pacific Gyre….

In a gyre, very little wind and extremely high pressure weather systems combine to greatly reduce ocean circulation. The largest marine ocean ecosystems are subtropical gyres which cover 40% of the earth’s surface. These immense regions of slowly spiraling warm equatorial air pull in winds and converging sea currents. Everything in a gyre moves slowly. Yachtsmen avoid them because there is too little wind for effective sailing. Gyres are the ‘doldrums’ of maritime history and legends. They contain regions of ‘dead calm’ where no wind blows for several days. Surface chlorophyll density is low, plant and animal growth and biomass is low as well.

Expecting little excitement and a slow uneventful cruise towards California, Moore was soon to have a shocking, unexpected experience.

Ocean Currents in the Pacific OceanPhoto:
Ocean Currents in the Pacific Ocean
Graphic art – NOAA

The North Pacific Gyre is an immense region of slowly spiraling, warm equatorial air that pulls in winds and converging sea currents. The Gyre’s current system has different names depending on location as seen in this map. Slowly turning air and sea currents expire long after the garbage they embrace has been added to the North Pacific Gyre. Gyres are found in all the world’s oceans; the garbage debris problem in the North Pacific Gyre has relatives elsewhere. In nine years, the North Pacific Gyre expanded 10X to 25X times faster than models of global warmng predicted and it is at least twice the size of Texas. It has expanded to the northeast into the eastern Pacific and portions of the Hawaiian archipelago – the northwest island chain and the Papahnaumokukea Marine National Monument.

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Monk Seal, Laysan Albatross / French Frigate ShoalsPhoto:
Monk Seal, Laysan Albatross / French Frigate Shoals
Photo – Duncan Wright, USFWS / Wikimedia

The ocean area of Papahnaumokukea is an extraordinary recent addition to America’s group of 13 National Marine Sanctuaries that are administered by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Encompassing 140,000 square miles (360,000 km) of ocean water, ten islands and atolls of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, Papahnaumokukea is the largest Marine Protected Area in the world. The Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge is also within the Marine National Monument boundary and is administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Papahnaumokukea supports 7,000 species, one quarter of which are endemic.

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