Right now, across the ocean’s vast, churning face, there are five massive patches of garbage. No one country is to blame, as the patches consist of the waste discarded by the entire planet. But, as the ocean is a vast, churning network of cold and warm currents, all of that waste eventually accumulates in places where the currents converge.

Global Garbage Gyres

Global garbage gyres

The most well known mass of debris is known as the Pacific Trash Vortex, or the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, located in the subtropical convergence zone of the North Pacific. Discovered by Captain Charles Moore in 1997, the vortex is not – as is commonly believed – a continent of trash but instead a soup of plastic particles and debris floating in the uppermost layer of the water column. The vortex’s negative impact on marine wildlife cannot be overstated: Fish, birds and other creatures will feed on the minute plastic particles believing them to be plankton. This can damage their guts, result in death and, most disturbingly, end up in the food you eat.

NASA recently created several videos that illustrate how these garbage patches form using data from floating buoys released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). In the video below, the buoys are represented by white dots. In its own research, NASA has also released particles into the ocean, which are visualized in blue below.

Below is a video showcasing just the particles alone. As NASA explains, “We distributed thousands of particles (virtual buoys) around the world, then ran a simulation based on the [computational model] ECCO2 flow vectors to see where those particles would move to over time. These simulated particles were colored blue/cyan based on the particle’s speed. Notice that over time garbage patches develop in each of the ocean basins.”

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