Giant Ocean-Trash Vortex Attracts Explorers

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
July 31, 2009

It may lack the allure of the North Pole or Mount Everest, but a Pacific Ocean trash dump twice the size of Texas is this summer's hot destination for explorers.

The Eastern Pacific Garbage Patch, situated in remote waters between California and Hawaii, is created by ocean currents that pick up millions of tons of the world's discarded plastic.

As much as 10 percent of the 260 million tons of plastic produced annually ends up in the oceans, much of it in trash vortices like the Pacific garbage patch.

This summer, two separate expeditions will set sail for the patch to document the scope of the problem and call global attention to disastrous ocean pollution.

"Every single person who has ever been to a beach anywhere has seen plastic, even in the remotest of places," said Doug Woodring, head of the ocean-health nonprofit Project Kaisei that will launch two boats next week.

The 174-foot (53-meter) New Horizon, owned by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, leaves San Diego with Kaisei team members on August 2. The expedition's flagship 150-foot (46-meter) Kaisei pushes off from San Francisco on August 4.

(Follow the Kaisei expedition's progress with an interactive voyage tracker.)

Toxic Morsels

Though the garbage patch provides a visible reminder of how humans can trash the environment, the vortex isn't carpeted with a surface layer of plastic.

Perhaps 70 percent of plastic at the site has sunk—out of sight, but not out of the ecosystem.

Much of the plastic has broken down into tiny pieces that saturate the water and become a toxic part of the marine ecosystem.

Enormous numbers of fish and birds die after eating tiny plastic morsels mistaken for prey.

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