Aerial Survey Shows Huge Pacific “Garbage Patch” Is Even Bigger Than Thought

Boyan Slat, founder of Ocean Cleanup, speaking at the Aerial Expedition Press Conference. Ocean Cleanup

The Ocean Cleanup foundation has completed the first-ever reconnaissance flight over the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” and the findings are pretty grim.

The huge area of plastic pollution known as the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” – a floating mass of litter of varying concentrations – is found in the Pacific, between Hawaii and California. Although the size and shape of it is constantly changing due to ocean currents and winds, the new aerial survey estimates that it could span as far as 3.5 million square kilometers (1.35 million square miles).

Last year, Ocean Cleanup, which was set up in 2013 to plan the "largest clean up in history", sent 30 vessels through the patch to sample and understand the extent of microplastics in the area. The aerial survey, however, has shown that not only is the density of rubbish much higher than they were expecting, but the number of large items (more than a meter) has been hugely underestimated too.

“Normally when you do an aerial survey of dolphins or whales, you make a sighting and record it,” said Boyan Slat, the founder of the Ocean Cleanup to the Guardian. “That was the plan for this survey. But then we opened the door and we saw the debris everywhere. Every half second you see something. So we had to take snapshots – it was impossible to record everything. It was bizarre to see that much garbage in what should be pristine ocean.”

content-1475664999-toc-ae-29.jpgThey may look small but "ghost nets" can be up to 30 miles wide and hundreds of feet deep. Ocean Cleanup

The experienced spotters used a modified Hercules airplane and an array of plastic scanning equipment to survey the area. They found for every 2.5 hours of surveying, a thousand items of litter were counted. Many of these include “ghost nets”, discarded commercial fishing nets that can range from 23 meters (75 feet) to 50 kilometers (30 miles) wide and run hundreds of meters deep. Designed to entangle fish, they are notorious for also ensnaring everything from turtles and dolphins to coral reefs and birds.

According to a report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation earlier this year, there is a very real chance that there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050 if we don't act now. 

Ocean Cleanup explained in a statement that it will be releasing all of the data from its aquatic and aerial expeditions in a peer-reviewed paper to be published in 2017, as a better understanding of the size, depth, and content of the patch will determine the design of the clean up “scheduled to begin before the end of the decade.”

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