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New mapping traces origins of ocean debris

Ocean boundaries redefined

Patches of plastic debris accumulate where they are concentrated by ocean currents.

Patches of plastic debris accumulate where they are concentrated by ocean currents.

Staff Report

FRISCO — Shredded bits of plastic now outweigh plankton in parts of the Pacific Ocean, posing a growing risk to to fish, turtles and birds that eat the trash. Efforts to limit the debris haven’t progressed much in the past few years, but new modeling of ocean currents may help researchers determine exactly where the waste is coming from.

“In some cases, you can have a country far away from a garbage patch that’s unexpectedly contributing directly to the patch,” said Gary Froyland, a mathematician at Australia’s University of New South Wales.

For example, the ocean debris from Madagascar and Mozambique would most likely flow into the south Atlantic, even though the two countries’ coastlines border the Indian Ocean.

The new model could also help determine how quickly garbage leaks from one patch into another, said Erik van Sebille, an oceanographer who collaborated with Froyland on the paper, published in the journal Chaos. At the heart of the researchers’ work on the origins and fate of floating rubbish lies a bigger question – how well do the ocean’s surface waters mix?

“We can use the new model to explore, for example, how quickly trash from Australia ends up in the north Pacific,” said van Sebille.

Fast-moving ocean currents form due to winds, differences in water temperatures, salinity gradients across the globe, and the forces caused by the spinning Earth. Currents stir ocean waters, but they also serve as barriers that minimize mixing between different ocean regions, much like the blast of fast-moving air at the entrance of an air-conditioned store keeps the cold inside air from mixing with the warm outside air.

The researchers divided the entire ocean into seven regions whose waters mix very little.

“Instead of using a supercomputer to move zillions of water particles around on the ocean surface, we have built a compact network model that captures the essentials of how the different parts of the ocean are connected,” said Froyland.

According to the new model, parts of the Pacific and Indian oceans are actually most closely coupled to the south Atlantic, while another sliver of the Indian Ocean really belongs in the south Pacific.

“The take-home message from our work is that we have redefined the borders of the ocean basins according to how the water moves,” said van Sebille. The geography of the new basins could yield insights into ocean ecology in addition to helping track ocean debris.

The researchers say their modeling technique could also be applied on a smaller scale – determining for example how much Canadian and American waters mix in the Great Lakes or how an oil spill might spread in the Gulf of Mexico.

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One Response

  1. Reblogged this on Uncommon Scolds and commented:
    The world holds so much garbage and so little good news.

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