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Scientists Watch Ocean Plastic Hotspots Form in Real Time

Feb. 6, 2018
by Erica Cirino

Researchers tracked hundreds of buoys deployed in the Gulf of Mexico. Not only did the buoys not spread out – many concentrated into an area the size of a football stadium. The findings may help scientists pinpoint areas for plastic or oil-spill cleanup.

I was at the wheel of a 54ft (16m) research sloop crossing the north Pacific Ocean through the heart of one of the most plastic-polluted parts of the sea, when I spotted my first piece of floating plastic debris. It was a shredded corner of a sun-bleached orange fish crate. Minutes later, I saw a chunk of white foam drift by and then a pink dustpan. Next, there went a green cosmetics bottle, but soon after, it was clean deep blue sea again.

I’d been at sea for nearly two weeks in November 2016, sailing from California to Hawaii with a group of Danish sailors and scientists. Up until that day, the only plastic I’d seen was the tiny broken-up bits of “microplastic” the scientists had scooped out of the water with manta trawls and other sampling equipment. But as the trip progressed, some days I saw lots of larger floating junk, sometimes very little and sometimes none. It’s well known that circulating currents called gyres concentrate plastic over large areas of the ocean’s surface, but I wondered what was behind the day-to-day variations in trash.

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