Expedition participants speak at Cal Poly on the trash accumulating in the Pacific Ocean.
The Great Garbage Patch sounds like a child’s triumphant attempt at making a garden out of garbage in their back yard. In reality, it’s a long name for miles of debris causing a massive plastic soup that’s taking on a life of its own in the middle of the North Pacific Ocean.
The North Pacific Ocean Gyre is home to one of the largest ecosystems on earth. A gyre is simply the rotation of currents. The west winds blow toward the east and the trade winds blow toward the west, making a clockwise swirl with a calm spot in the center, said Miriam Goldstein, a graduate student at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. It’s here that tiny pieces of plastic and larger pieces of debris are accumulating.
Many media outlets have presented the garbage patch as a Texas-size pile of trash floating mysteriously in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. In reality, the great garbage patch can’t be seen from satellites, let alone the naked eye in many cases, but it’s ecological effects are a fearful wonder to researchers around the world.
“The major misconception is that it’s the eighth continent or an island,” Goldstein said. “Over 90 percent is less than the size of your pinky fingernail.”
The Garbage Patch was sought after by a research vessel of nearly 20 individuals last summer, two of which spoke at Cal Poly last weekend. In August, this mix of doctoral students, led by Goldstein and research volunteers from Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, hopped aboard the Scripps research vessel, the New Horizon, and headed West, 1,000 miles off the coast of California. For two weeks, they gathered samples and data that is still being analyzed six months later.
The Scripps Environmental Accumulation of Plastic Expedition (SEAPLEX) set out to measure how much trash is there, what it’s composed of and its impact on ocean life. The passengers ranged from students studying the plastics’ effects on marine mammals to observers counting whole pieces of trash passing by (a couple pieces per minute according to Goldstein).
“There certainly are larger pieces too,” Goldstein said. “We found a toy stuffed-animal dog that we named Lucky. It took a lot of dish soap to clean him, but he was actually in pretty good shape.”
Lucky is now on exhibit at the Birch Aquarium in La Jolla. Goldstein explained that there is no easy way to tell how long the trash has been out there. They could only estimate that Lucky was a new addition to the Garbage Patch, because he was in such good shape.
Goldstein explains that all of the trash that falls off of North America will eventually end up there.
“It’s a dead end,” she said. “Once in the Gyre, there’s no place for them to go, unless they sink.”
Goldstein’s research focussed on the abundance of the tiny plastic particles and the plankton communities growing on the plastic. She says it takes her six or seven hours with a specialized scanner to count and measure one jar. This is why most of the research from the expedition is still in progress and will not be published for months.
Jesse Powel, a doctoral student at Scripps and Lara Dickens, a high school science teacher in San Diego came to the Central Coast for three days to discuss the effects of the Garbage Patch and their experiences with SEAPLEX. They made stops at Cal Poly, Downtown Brewing Co., Grover Beach Exploration Station and the San Luis Obispo Children’s Museum. They discussed topics like the volume of plastic produced, why it accumulates in the Gyre, particle distribution and the ocean physics of the Gyre.
Dickens was chosen to join the researchers on SEAPLEX through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Teacher at Sea Program. She is a Cal Poly alumna in environmental engineering.
Dickens talked about the broad range of research done at sea with someone constantly working on their data.
“It was a 24-hour lab every day,” she said. “It was crazy fascinating. There were so many different perspectives studying the Gyre.”
Powel and Dickens were brought to campus via the Science Café, an international movement that found its way to the Kennedy Library during January of last year. Cynthia Perrine, coordinator of the Science Café on campus says the movement started five years ago and is typically held in bars and cafes. They are events at which the public has the opportunity to sit and converse in a casual setting with scientists and researchers.
Last Thursday, at the San Luis Obispo Children’s Museum, a group of children were able to experiment with a watershed model — a miniature city—before hearing about the Garbage Patch from Powel and Dickens. They dumped green Kool-Aid as sewage into a treatment plant and Hershey’s Syrup into the streets as oil, Perrine explained. They were then given a water bottle to squirt as rain. The water would move through the water ways and end up in the ocean, taking everything with it.
“The younger crowds really got it,” Perrine said. “They did the watershed model over and over again.”
That night at Downtown Brew, a group of nearly 70 people discussed topics on the Garbage Patch in a casual environment with Powel and Dickens.
“People have a beer and can ask questions in a different environment,” Perrine said.
On Friday, the two held a presentation at Kennedy Library on the SEAPLEX trip and more activities on Saturday at the Grover Beach Exploration Station. Their goal was to reach the San Luis Obispo community and the broader science community and create awareness on the trash build-up in the oceans while aspiring to change the amount of plastic waste produced, Dickens said.
“The best thing is to prevent more trash from getting out there,” Perrine said.