American Oceans

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch Is So Big It Has Its Own Ecosystem

3d rendering of the great pacific garbage patch

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP) is a vast and permanent collection of plastic debris, covering a surface area twice the size of Texas, located in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre between California and Hawaii, one of the most polluted marine areas in the world. According to the non-profit group The Ocean Cleanup, the GPGP is not island-like but rather millions of pieces of detritus, partly made up of microplastics that can’t be seen by the naked eye but are easily ingested by marine life and end up in the food chain.

A recent study published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution has revealed that dozens of tiny coastal species are surviving and reproducing in the GPGP. Researchers analysed rafting plastic debris from the eastern part of the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre and discovered more than 484 marine invertebrate organisms from 46 different species, including crabs, sea anemones, and minuscule invertebrates. Eight in 10 of these species are typically found in habitats thousands of miles away.

The study warns that coastal species’ new plastic homes in the ocean are “fundamentally altering the oceanic communities and ecosystem processes in this environment with potential implications for shifts in species dispersal and biogeography” on a large scale.

It’s estimated that every year between 1.15 to 2.41 million tonnes of plastic are entering the ocean, at the rate of one garbage truck every minute. Some 79,000 tonnes of that plastic debris, the weight of 500 jumbo jets, is swirling in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre. The plastic debris is not decomposing and will float around in the ocean indefinitely, acting as life rafts for tiny creatures.

The GPGP is just one of many garbage patches in the ocean. Garbage patches are formed by ocean currents that converge in the middle of the ocean, trapping debris in the center. The currents that converge in the North Pacific Gyre are the North Pacific Current, the California Current, and the North Equatorial Current. The GPGP is located in the eastern part of the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre.

The issue of plastic pollution in the ocean goes beyond just ingestion and entanglement. It creates opportunities for coastal species’ biogeography to greatly expand beyond what was previously thought possible. The study’s lead author, Linsey Haram, warns that plastic pollution is “fundamentally altering the oceanic communities and ecosystem processes in this environment with potential implications for shifts in species dispersal and biogeography” on a large scale.

It will take an estimated $175bn (£141bn) each year to protect the global ocean, according to the World Economic Forum. Between 2015 and 2019, less than $10bn total was invested in the cause.

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