Let’s take a moment to catch up on some interesting oceanography. What is a gyre?
A gyre is a current of water that moves around the ocean. There are 5 major gyres: North and South Pacific, North and South Atlantic, and South Indian Ocean, which you can see on the map below.
Well then, what is a current? There are different kind of currents (such as tidal, coastal and surface), which are defined generally by NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association) as the motion of water. There are a few factors that cause water to move. The factors that create the major gyres are wind and the Corliolis Effect.
The Corliolis Effect is caused by the rotation of the Earth and makes wind blowing toward the equator curve (west). This results in the circular pattern of wind that pushes water to create currents, which travel around the ocean basins to form gyres! Got that? For more information, visit NOAA’s page on currents.
Okay, so there are big whirlpools in the ocean, what does that have to do with a children’s toy? Well, unlike the toys, Garbage Patch Kids are not so cute. In the middle of the 5 major gyres, there are 5 major messes! The gyres collect marine debris (mostly plastic) from around the world into large “garbage patches”. You can demonstrate this effect the next by filling a large pot (an “ocean basin) with water. Stir the pot to create a current (gyre) and add parsley flakes. You’ll notice that the flakes start to drift toward the center of the gyre–now time to make some pasta! Unfortunately, when animals swim through or live in this mess, they eat and get tangled up in this debris, becoming “Garbage Patch Kids”. These animals can fill their bellies with trash and eventually starve to death, or get wrapped up when they are small and have their growth impaired.
The most famous of these is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the Northern Pacific Gyre. This collection of marine debris spans an inestimable area of the ocean. It isn’t exactly a raft of plastic bottles, though. In fact, the marine debris collected in the gyres is suspended and floats at different levels of the water column–affecting different types of ocean organisms. Research on this collection of waste is being conducted by many organizations, notably the 5 Gyre Project, which researches and educates about the impact of our trash on ocean ecosystems, organisms and on humans.
Sometimes it seems like trash out in the middle of the ocean is not something that we can’t do anything about. But remember, we are all connected! Most of the trash that litters the world’s oceans was once on land. We can prevent more trash from getting out there by continuing to be stewards every day. Efforts such as the Coastal Cleanup this weekend do make a huge impact, and are great ways to feel connected to a global initiative–because trash in the ocean is everyone’s problem. We can help out at home too. I try to make sure that my trash can and recycling bin lids are shut tight so that wind (and birds) can’t carry my waste away. I also try to reuse rather than recycle when I can.