New research published in the journal Geophysical Research Letterssuggests current estimates on the amount of plastic pollution accumulating in the Pacific ocean are likely much lower than what's really building up.
The report, titled "The effect of wind mixing on the vertical distribution of buoyant plastic debris," conducted by scientists at the Universities of Washington and Delaware along with the Sea Education Association, claims that research has just barely touched on the issue of plastic debris in the ocean, but at the very least, the scientific community is severely underestimating the amount of plastic build up at sea.
Among the recent findings, researchers discovered that certain oceanic elements can actually push plastic down deep below the surface where it likely goes unnoticed unlike the Great Pacific Garbage Patch—the Texas-sized island of floating plastic several thousand miles off of California's coast that has brought attention to the issue.
After witnessing plastic disappear with wind gusts while out on the ocean, researcher Giora Proskurowski of the University of Washington took samples from 16 feet and as deep as 100 feet below the ocean's surface where plastic was discovered despite not being visible from the ocean surface. Proskurowski compared his findings with research from the 1990s and early 2000s taken by the Sea Education Association and found that virtually all of the samples by comparison contained plastic "regardless of the depth."
According to Proskurowski, to account accurately, factors like wind must be considered where water samples are taken, as wind currents can force plastic deeper under the ocean's surface.
Some of the issues with plastic pollution include ingestion by animals caught for human consumption and the toxins the plastic releases into the animals. And there's also the development of reef-like structural formations on plastic where animals and other marine life are beginning to live. The unnatural structures can profoundly impact oceanic ecosystems as seen with the Pacific ocean's Garbage Patch.
Keep in touch with Jill on Twitter @jillettinger