By Ada Carr
A largely unstudied area of the South Pacific Ocean is home to a newly discovered garbage patch that researchers estimate to be 1.5 times the size of Texas, according to a recent study.
This new patch found in the ocean’s gyre is estimated to be as large as 965,000 square miles, reports ResearchGate. Gyres are areas of the ocean that are surrounded by circulating currents. They help circulate ocean waters around the world, but they also suck in pollution.
Algalita Marine Research and Education scientist Cpt. Charles Moore and his team of volunteer researchers made the discovery during a six-month expedition.
“We discovered tremendous quantities of plastic,” Moore, who was the first to discover the North Pacific garbage patch in the 1990s, told ResearchGate. “My initial impression is that our samples compared to what we were seeing in the North Pacific in 2007, so it’s about ten years behind.”
The South Pacific patch is primarily made up of tiny pieces of plastic that are even smaller than a grain of rice.
“We found a few larger items, occasionally a buoy and some fishing gear, but most of it was broken into bits,” said Moore. “We haven’t yet done lab analysis, but based on my visual impression, an enormous area of the South Pacific has millions of plastic particles per square kilometer.”
These tiny particles of plastic can cause massive problems. In June, officials at the first-ever U.N. Ocean Conference cited a study that estimates plastics dumped into the world’s oceans could outweigh fish by 2050.
Microbeads are among the most common types of plastic found in the world’s waterways. These are tiny bits of plastic smaller than 5 mm that can be found in our toothpastes, soaps, face washes and cleaning products. These plastics never really go away because they can last for decades, fragmenting over and over again into smaller pieces.
Researchers estimated that 8 trillion microbeads are being released into U.S. aquatic habitats per day. Some marine life species tend to mistake them for food. Scientists are analyzing how these microscopic plastics are affecting marine life once ingested and whether the chemicals in them can be transferred to people that may consume the marine life later.
Once tiny particles of plastic make their way into the gyre, they’re nearly impossible to clean up. Researchers say the best method of prevention is to stop the plastic at the source.
“Gone are the silly notions that you can put nets in the ocean and solve the problem,” Eriksen told ResearchGate. “This cloud of microplastics extends both vertically and horizontally. It’s more like smog than a patch. We’re making tremendous progress to clean up smog over our cities by stopping the source. We have to do the same for our seas.”
“If we don’t understand where the plastic is, then we don’t really understand what harm it does and we can’t really work on solving the problem,” oceanographer Dr. Erik van Sebille told BBC.
Currently, Moore and his team are in the process of cleaning and analyzing the plastic so they can provide more details.
“There’s a sense of urgency to get information out about this area because it’s being destroyed at an enormously accelerated rate,” said Moore. “For much of the unexplored ocean, we will never have pre-plastic baseline data.”
Moore’s team is only the second to collect samples from the South Pacific gyre. It was first studied by marine pollution researcher Marcus Eriksen in 2011, according to ResearchGate. Since then, researchers believe an additional tens of millions of tons of plastic have made their way into Earth’s oceans.