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How Floating Garbage Patches Form in the Ocean

Watch marine trash get sucked into five immense garbage gyres.

Toss a soda bottle in the storm drain, like a jerk, in California—where will it eventually wind up?

Chances are circulating somewhere in the immense garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean. Or, if the currents so dictate, maybe in one of the four other humongous floating dumps around Earth. Now you can see trash’s adventures on the high seas thanks to this animation from NOAA, which simulates how debris dropped throughout the oceans gets sucked into distinct mega-gyres in the north and south Atlantic, north and south Pacific, and the Indian Ocean.

The model, produced by the folks at Science on a Sphere based on NASA research, depicts objects adrift as tiny dots moving in slower (blue) and faster (lighter blue) currents. Here’s the other side of the planet (the full animation is posted on Facebook):

The simulation pulls from a computer model of currents as well as historical data from buoys thrown in the ocean. (Expect it to be updated in coming years when a sixth garbage gyre forms in the Barents Sea.) Here’s more from NASA, which has posted some high-quality, downloadable versions:

We start with data from floating, scientific buoys that NOAA has been distributing in the oceans for the last 35 years represented here as white dots. Let's speed up time to see where the buoys go…. Interesting patterns appear all over the place. Lines of buoys are due to ships and planes that released buoys periodically. If we let all of the buoys go at the same time, we can observe buoy migration patterns. The number of buoys decreases because some buoys don’t last as long as others. The buoys migrate to 5 known gyres also called ocean garbage patches.

You can see what they’re talking about in regard to lines of dropped buoys drawn into gyres in this longer cut:

About the Author

  • John Metcalfe
    John Metcalfe is CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, based in Oakland. His coverage focuses on climate change and the science of cities.