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Plastic debris clogs the North Pacific Gyre, worrying scientists

By Michael Krebs     Aug 27, 2009 in Environment
The North Pacific Gyre - a stretch of ocean 1,000 miles from the California coast - serves as the earth's natural digestion chamber, grinding up terrestrial debris. Scientists now confirm that it is clogged with plastic.
If the earth is ever proven to be a living cell that subsists on its own accord and regulates its systems, the North and South Pacific Gyres would serve as important digestive bodies - grinding the discarded scraps from the continents into fine particulate matter that is then conveniently and efficiently consumed by plankton and fish and other sea life. This is the function of the Pacific Gyres: the slow emulsification of terrestrial debris.
It is a very slow process of renewal - one that involves the patient flow of water over other water, and of currents moving through and around other currents; all sea lanes lapping centrally and eventually toward these final destinations - and whatever discarded vegetation happened into the seas will be shaped and sheared into a new purpose.
The Pacific Gyres did not account for the byproducts of human ingenuity and the heaps of indigestible shapes our species has contributed. And so it is that the North Pacific Gyre has been found by scientists to be infested with plastic. In effect, we have clogged the one of the planet's great digestive corridors - and the impact of this is still unknown.
"Most of the trash has broken into bite-sized plastic bits, and scientists want to know whether it's sickening or killing the small fish, plankton and birds that ingest it," the Associated Press reported. "During their August fact-finding expedition, a group of University of California scientists found much more debris than they expected. The team announced their observations at a San Diego press conference Thursday."
The Pacific Gyre's grinding action has reduced the discarded plastic into pieces that can be readily ingested. Plastic sea trash does not biodegrade, and the contents have been proven to travel great distances to get to the North Pacific's remote location.
"It's pretty shocking—it's unusual to find exactly what you're looking for," Miriam Goldstein, who led fellow researchers from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego on the three-week voyage, told AP.
The swirling currents are also referred to as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch for the remnant plastic gathered there.
"Katsuhiko Saido, a chemist at Nihon University, Chiba, Japan, told the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society last week that plastic actually does decompose, releasing potentially toxic chemicals that can disrupt the functioning of hormones in animals and marine life," AP reported. "The Scripps team hopes the samples they gathered during the trip nail down answers to questions of the trash's environmental impact. Does eating plastic poison plankton? Is the ecosystem in trouble when new sea creatures hitchhike on the side of a water bottle?"
The environmental outcome is unclear to life near the North Pacfic Gyre, and the South Pacific Gyre is reported to be four times as large as that of its North Pacific cousin.
"We're afraid at what we're going to find in the South Gyre, but we've got to go there," Tony Haymet, director of the Scripps Institution, told AP.
More about Pacific ocean, Gyre, Plastic, Garbage, Pollution
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