Scientists have cataloged a new and enormous aquatic garbage dump in the western North Atlantic.
A team of researchers from the Sea Education Association (SEA), Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), and the University of Hawaii (UH) has found that an area of the western North Atlantic is full of plastic debris, comparable to what’s known as the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’.
More than 64,000 individual plastic pieces were collected at 6,100 locations, using a surface plankton net to collect plastic debris as well as biological organisms.
The highest concentrations of plastic were seen in a region centered at 32°N – roughly the latitude of Atlanta – and extending from 22-38°N latitude.
Numerical simulations by Nikolai Maximenko of UH explain why surface currents cause the plastic to accumulate in this region, the scientists say.
“Not only does this important data set provide the first rigorous scientific estimate of the extent and amount of floating plastic at an ocean-basin scale, but the data also confirm that basic ocean physics explains why the plastic accumulates in this region so far from shore,” said lead author SEA scientist Kara Lavender Law.
One surprising finding is that the concentration of floating plastic debris hasn’t increased during the 22-year period of the study – despite the fact that the plastic disposal has increased substantially. The whereabouts of the missing plastic is unknown.
Most of the plastic is millimeters in size and consists of polyethylene or polypropylene, materials that float in seawater. There is evidence that biological growth may alter the physical characteristics of the plastic over time, perhaps causing it to sink.
“I think some of the big questions are colonization: who actually lives on these pieces of plastic?” said Chris Reddy of WHOI. “To what extent are ocean currents moving the small life on these plastic particles around the ocean?”