Earth System Science Education Alliance
Current Learners & Faculty Login
navigation image


Biosphere, Hydrosphere, Oceans



"It's as big as Texas."
"It's twice the size of Texas."
" It's bigger than the United States. "

Do you remember reading headline catch phrases like these about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (a.k.a the Eastern Garbage Patch)? Did you run to your computer to look at satellite images of the island of trash? If so, what did you find? Nothing, that's what. You were not alone. One of the most popular questions on information sites and environmental blogs at the time was why this great patch of trash in the Pacific Ocean was nowhere to be found on ocean satellite images.

The garbage patch can't be seen on satellite images because it's not a floating island of trash the size of the United States or Texas. It's an area, a large area, in the North Pacific Gyre where trash collects due to the circular pattern of the surface currents. The trash that collects there is mostly plastic. Not big piles of plastic toys, bottles, bags, bottle caps, abandoned fishing nets (ghost nets), industrial plastic pellets (nurdles), etc., but more like a "plastic soup" made up of small pieces of degraded plastics. The plastic pieces float near the surface with larger, more intact plastic items and other marine debris. Many pieces of marine plastic are so small that a new term "microplastics" was introduced to describe them. The NOAA Marine Debris Program defines microplastics as plastic debris pieces in the size range of 0.3-5mm (the size of two human hairs side-by-side to the size of a grain of rice).

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch was first "discovered" in 1997 by Captain Charles Moore while he was crossing the Pacific after a yacht race. He chose a course for his return trip that took him through the eastern part of the North Pacific Gyre.

"It seemed unbelievable, but I never found a clear spot. In the week it took to cross the subtropical high, no matter what time of day I looked, plastic debris was floating everywhere: bottles, bottle caps, wrappers, fragments. Months later, after I discussed what I had seen with the oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer, perhaps the world's leading expert on flotsam, he began referring to the area as the 'eastern garbage patch."
Capt. Charles Moore Natural History Magazine Nov. 2003.

Answering the satellite image question about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch was easy compared to getting a handle on the amounts, sources and impacts of and solutions to the trash in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. We know the patch is big. The 2009 SEAPLEX expedition collected samples along a 3000 mile cruise track that didn't come close to covering the entire patch area, the boundaries of which are difficult to define. We know the patch contains a bunch of plastic that is not going to disappear any time soon. Nobody knows how much plastic ends up in the ocean, but marine plastics don't go away. We know the plastic in the patch came from human sources, washed from the land or dumped in the sea. The U.S. produced over 103 billion pounds of plastic resin in 2011, much of which was used to make "single-use" products such as packaging materials. We know that plastic in the ocean affects marine life - they eat and get entangled in it. Nine percent of the fish samples collected during the 2009 SEAPLEX expedition had ingested plastic, yielding an estimated ingestion rate of roughly 12,000 to 24,000 tons per year for fish at intermediate depths in the Pacific.

We are learning more everyday about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Scientists are hard at work collecting and analyzing samples, developing "patch" models and preparing new studies. What they find will help us better understand the implications of the plastic vortices that are the ocean garbage patches and how we can prevent them from growing.



The freshman senator from your state has asked your team to conduct an analysis of the causes and the existing and potential environmental impacts of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. His staff will use the information to prepare a position statement on the need for increased marine plastic research funding.


Your group is serving as interns to the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI). During a recent morning briefing, the researchers called attention to findings from two recent studies that reflect large differences in the trends of marine plastic accumulations in the Atlantic Ocean in comparison to the Pacific ocean. Results from one study indicate that the amount of plastic in the North Pacific Gyre has increased a 100-fold in the last 40 years. Findings from the second study, based on the analysis of over 6000 samples collected in the Atlantic since 1986, indicate that the amount of plastic in the North Atlantic Gyre has remained stable despite a five-fold increase in world plastic production since 1976. The research team needs well supported and up to date information about plastics in both gyres to prepare for an upcoming meeting on marine debris.


Date: 6/6/2012

Scenario Images:

Ocean Gyres
There are five major spirals of ocean-circling currents called "gyres". The Coriolis force deflects these surface ocean currents to the right in the Northern Hemisphere (clockwise spiral) and to the left in the Southern Hemisphere (counter-clockwise spiral). Image: modified NOAA National Ocean Service

Pacific Convergence Zone
Simplified map of the North Pacific Ocean ocean currents. These currents concentrate marine debris, especially large quantities of small bits of plastic, in certain areas. Similar convergence zones exist within other ocean gyres. Image: NOAA Marine Debris Program.

pastic soup
'Plastic Soup" has been used to describe the small bits of plastic that are found in the North Pacific and other gyre garbage patches. In the ocean plastic bottles, bags, toys and other plastic trash often break down into tiny peices that are easily ingested by birds and fish. Synthetic Sea Video Image: Agalita Marine Research Institute

SEAPlex Fish
In the summer of 2009, SEAPLEX scientists netted animal inhabitants of the Eastern Pacific Garbage Patch including myctophid fish (top), flying fish (middle), and squid--commingled with bits of plastic. Inside the Plastic Vortex Image: Scripps Institution of Oceanography

Nearly all Laysan albatross carcasses found on Midway Island have marine debris in them. The percentage of birds that die from consumption of marine debris, or its effects, is still unknown, but they often feed their chicks marine plastic. Video Image: Andy Collins, NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries



De-mystifying the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (Cycle A)
FAQ's from NOAA Marine Debris 101.


NOAA Office of Response and Restoration/Marine Debris (Cycle A)
General information and recent developments about marine plastic debris.


Plastic Marine Debris: An In-Depth Look (Cycle A)
NOAA basics on the monitoring, degradation and impacts of plastic marine debris.


Plastic Marine Debris: What We Know (Cycle A)
FAQ's about plastic marine debris from NOAA Marine Debris 101.


Trash Travels (Cycle A)
Ocean Conservancy detailed 2010 report on types, quantities, and sources of marine debris collected during the 2009 International Coastal Cleanup effort. 25 year summary poster


5 Gyres Institute (Cycle B)
Information about previous and ongoing research into the location, quantity, impacts and future of marine plastic debris.


Algalita Marine Research Institute (AMRI) (Cycle B)
AMRI site provides educational and research materials exploring the levels and impacts of plastic marine debris. Follow current and previous expeditions and access data using ArcGIS maps. A Comparison of Plastic and Plankton in the North Pacific Central Gyre


Persistent Organic Pollutants and Other Marine Plastic Problems (Cycle B)
The following articles provide results from recent studies exploring potential pollutants and other impacts of marine plastics.


Plastics at Sea (Cycle B)
Plastics at Sea has been conducting research on Pacific and Atlantic ocean plastic debris for 25 years at the Sea Education Association.


Plastics Breaks Down Fast in Ocean (Cycle B)
2009 study is the first to show that degrading plastics are leaching potentially toxic chemicals such as bisphenol A into the seas, possibly threatening ocean animals, and us.


Scripps Institute SEAPLEX : Seeking the Science of the Garbage Patch (Cycle B)
The latest results and more from the SEAPLEX expeditions in collaboration with Project Kaiser: Capturing the Plastic Vortex.


Data in the Classroom (Cycle C)
Data in the Classroom is an online resource for K-12 teachers interested in using real scientific data in their teaching. This Web site is the current home of the NOAA Ocean Data Education (NODE) Project, which is creating curriculum and online tools that demonstrate the use of real-time data.


Flotsametrics (Cycle C)
How One Man's Obsession with Runaway Sneakers and Rubber Ducks Revolutionized Ocean Science by Curtis Ebbesmeyer and Eric Scigliano


National Geographics Ocean Collection (Cycle C)
New Nat Geo education site allows you to search resources by type, grade level, intended audience and more. National Geographic's One Ocean Teachers' Guide.


TeachEngineering (Cycle C)
The TeachEngineering digital library provides teacher-tested, standards-based engineering content for K-12 teachers to use in science and math classrooms. Engineering lessons connect real-world experiences with curricular content already taught in K-12 classrooms.


Teachers Guide to Systems Thinking in Environmental Education (Cycle C)
Guidebook designed for new teachers and learners of systems thinking. Detailed descriptions of how to use systems concepts and tools are provided. Grades 9-12


Sample Investigations:


Marine Debris: A Legacy of Litter (Cycle A)
Students learn about the sources and impacts of marine debris. They participate in school site clean up and compare their findings to international coastal clean up data.
Difficulty: beginner
Very basic investigation in which students classify aquatic debris and explore it impact on marine life.


Physics of Flotsam - The Central North Pacific Gyre (Cycle A)
In this investigation, students seek answers to essential questions about the source and implications of marine plastic in the Central North Pacific Gyre. They idenitfy the location of ocean gyres, calculate their size and more.

Difficulty: beginner


Plastic Micro-Debris (Cycle A)
In this investigation students explore the degradation of marine plastics and ocean debris sampling techniques using a transect grid.

Difficulty: beginner


Plastics in the Water Column (Cycle A)
What happens when plastics enter the ocean? Students explore the density and buoyancy of different plastics. They then predict how plastics affect marine food webs and brainstorm actions to reduce marine debris.
Difficulty: beginner


Laysan Albatross Virtual Bolus Dissection (Cycle B)
Students use online videos and photo galleries to conduct a virtual bolus dissection of a laysan albatross. They investigate how marine debris can be mistaken for food and harm marine organisms.
Difficulty: beginner


You Are What You Eat: Plastics and Marine Life (Cycle B)
Matching animal cards to plastic risks, students learn about the many
ways marine life can be affected by plastics in their aquatic home. NOTE: The value quoted for the calculated abundance of plastics (334,271 pieces per square mile) is this investigation is incorrect. The correct value is 334,271 pieces per square kilometer. original report
Difficulty: beginner


Marine Protected Areas (Cycle C)
In this investigation students use Google maps to compare and contrast marine protected areas (MPA) with terrestrial protected areas. Extend this investigation to explore the implications of the Pacific "garbage patch" on one or more of the MPA's along the northwestern coast of the United States.
Difficulty: intermediate


Plastic Journey: A Study of the Central North Pacific Gyre (Cycle C)
In this investigation, students seek answers to essential quesstions about the source and implications of marine plastic in the Central North Pacific Gyre. They use what they learn to develop an action plan and produce a video as evidence of their understanding.

Difficulty: intermediate
Can easily be adapted for Middle School. Students who don't live along a coastal waterway could "adopt" one of the cities identified in the investigation as their area of focus or use the investigation methodology as a model to explore the problem for a coastal city nearer their neighborhood.


The Great Pacific Garbage Patch (Cycle C)
As part of a TeachENGINEERING GIS unit this investigation provides a real world context for creating interesting maps. Associated activities include: Get the Word Out at McDonalds©,Where Are the Plastics Near Me? Mapping the Data and Where Are the Plastics Near Me? Field Trip
Difficulty: intermediate




  • Science
    National Science Education Standards - Science Content Standards The science content standards outline what students should know, understand, and be able to do in the natural sciences over the course of K-12 education.
      The understandings and abilities associated with the following concepts and processes need to be developed throughout a student's educational experiences:
      • Systems, order, and organization
      • Evidence, models, and explanation
      • Constancy, change, and measurement
      • Science as Inquiry (Std A)
        • Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry
        • Understanding about scientific inquiry
      • Physical Science (Std B)
        • Properties and changes of properties in matter
        • Motions and forces
      • Life Science (Std C)
        • Regulation and behavior
        • Populations and ecosystems
      • Earth and Space Science (Std D)
        • Structure of the earth system
      • Science and Technology (Std E)
        • Understanding about science and technology
      • Science in Personal and Social Perspectives (Std F)
        • Populations, resources, and environments
      • History and Nature of Science (Std G)
        • Nature of science
      • Science as Inquiry (Std A)
        • Understanding about scientific inquiry
      • Physical Science (Std B)
        • Structure and properties of matter
        • Motions and forces
      • Life Science (Std C)
        • Behavior of organisms
      • Earth and Space Science (Std D)
        • Energy in the earth system
      • Science and Technology (Std E)
        • Understanding about science and technology
      • Science in Personal and Social Perspectives (Std F)
        • Environmental quality
        • Science and technology in local, national, and global challenges
      • History and Nature of Science (Std G)
        • Science as a human endeavor
  • Mathematics
    Principles and Standards for School Mathematics, National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), 2000 This set of Standards proposes the mathematics concepts that all students should have the opportunity to learn. Each of these ten Standards applies across all grades, prekindergarten through grade 12. Even though each of these ten Standards applies to all grades, emphases and expectations will vary both within and between the grade bands (K-2, 3-5, 6-8, 9-12). For instance, the emphasis on number is greatest in prekindergarten through grade 2, and by grades 9-12, number receives less instructional attention. Also the total time for mathematical instruction will be divided differently according to particular needs in each grade band - for example, in the middle grades, the majority of instructional time would address algebra and geometry.
      Mathematics instructional programs should include attention to geometry and spatial sense so that all students—
      • use visualization and spatial reasoning to solve problems both within and outside of mathematics.
      Mathematics instructional programs should include attention to measurement so that all students—
      • understand attributes, units, and systems of measurement;
      • apply a variety of techniques, tools, and formulas for determining measurements.
      Mathematics instructional programs should include attention to data analysis, statistics, and probability so that all students—
      • pose questions and collect, organize, and represent data to answer those questions;
      • develop and evaluate inferences, predictions, and arguments that are based on data;
      Mathematics instructional programs should focus on solving problems as part of understanding mathematics so that all students—
      • develop a disposition to formulate, represent, abstract, and generalize in situations within and outside mathematics;
  • Geography
    Geography for Life: National Geography Standards, 1994
      Geography studies the relationships between people, places, and environments by mapping information about them into a spatial context. The geographically informed person knows and understands:
      • How to use maps and other geographic representations, tools and technologies to acquire, process, and report information from a spatial perspective
      • How to analyze the spatial organization of people, places, and environments on Earth’s surface
      The identities and lives of individuals and people are rooted in particular places and in those human constructs called regions. The geographically informed person knows and understands:
      • The physical and human characteristics of places
      Physical processes shape Earth’s surface and interact with plant and animal life to create, sustain, and modify ecosystems. The geographically informed person knows and understands:
      • The characteristics and spatial distribution of ecosystems on Earth’s surface
      The physical environment is modified by human activities, largely as a consequence of the ways in which human societies value and use Earth’s natural resources, and human activities are also influenced by Earth’s physical features and processes. The geographically informed person knows and understands:
      • How human actions modify the physical environment
      Knowledge of geography enables people to develop an understanding of the relationships between people, places, and environments over time — that is, of Earth as it was, is, and might be. The geographically informed person knows and understands:
      • How to apply geography to interpret the present and plan for the future
  • Technology
    The International Society for Technology Education From and
      • Students demonstrate a sound understanding of the nature and operation of technology systems.
      • Students practice responsible use of technology systems, information, and software.
      • Students develop positive attitudes toward technology uses that support lifelong learning, collaboration, personal pursuits, and productivity.
      • Students use technology tools to enhance learning, increase productivity, and promote creativity.
      • Students use productivity tools to collaborate in constructing technology-enhanced models, prepare publications, and produce other creative works.
      • Students use telecommunications to collaborate, publish, and interact with peers, experts, and other audiences.
      • Students use technology to locate, evaluate, and collect information from a variety of sources.
      • Students use technology tools to process data and report results.
      • Students use technology resources for solving problems and making informed decisions.
      • Students employ technology in the development of strategies for solving problems in the real world.
Comments and Questions:  |  Sitemap  |  Accessibility
Copyright © 2019. Institute for Global Environmental Strategies. All Rights Reserved.