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August 29, 2009

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Great Pacific Garbage Patch stretches across 2,700km

Ocean scientists recently back from a voyage to the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch" said on Thursday that they had found plastic debris strewn across a 2,700-kilometer-long stretch of open sea.

The research team from the three-week Seaplex expedition said more work remains to be done to determine the full extent of the trash vortex, how it affects marine life and how it might safely be removed from the ocean.

Cleanup will be difficult because the "vast majority of things we saw were small, about the size of your thumbnail or smaller," Miriam Goldstein, the expedition's chief scientist, said at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California.

"We found a lot of particles that were about the size of the animals that are living out there, so that would certainly present a challenge to removing those particles," she said.

The 52-meter research vessel New Horizon returned to shore last Friday from a trip to the North Pacific Ocean Gyre, a giant eddy-like expanse of sea about midway between Japan and the United States.

Debris winds up concentrated there by circular, clockwise ocean currents that form an oblong-shaped "convergence zone."

"Our human footprint is now apparent in even one of the most remote places on the planet," said Doug Woodring, director of Project Kaisei, which co-sponsored the Seaplex study.

His group's ship returns from its own expedition next week. That boat, the Kaisei, has been experimenting with possible debris-skimming cleanup methods, he said.

The existence of the vast, remote debris field, widely referred to as the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch," was first publicized by ocean activist Charles Moore, who discovered the area by accident in 1997.

Goldstein said the crew of the New Horizon hauled up plastic debris in 100 consecutive surface samples taken across 2,700km of the ship's cruise track.

In one spot, the water was littered with plastic specks, "like little flecks of confetti or snow."


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