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The Ocean's Giant Garbage Patch: Who's to Blame?

Sep 03, 2014 11:03 AM EDT

Experts have recently developed a new computer model that they hope will help them answer an important environmental mystery: "Who's to blame for the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?"

According to a study recently published in the unusually named scientific journal Chaos, that infamous patch of refuse in the Pacific is actually just one of at least five, and tracking who contributes to these garbage heaps led to some interesting results.

"In some cases, you can have a country far away from a garbage patch that's unexpectedly contributing directly to the patch," Gary Froyland, of the University of New South Wales, explained in a release.

He cites Madagascar and Mozambique as examples. Even though these countries lie against the Indian ocean, their trash will most likely end up in the south Atlantic, thanks to a complex network of ocean currents and the function of the massive gyres that form the garbage heaps in the first place.

Erik van Sebille, an oceanographer who co-authored the study with Froyland, added that the computing model also determined how quickly garbage slips away from one patch to another - an effect that makes it difficult to track growth over time.

This then means that the patches cannot be viewed and addressed as individual pollution problems, but more-so as an interconnected web of floating trash heaps, fueled by fixed oceanic surface currents not always seen on maps.

"The breaking of the geographic ocean boundaries should shift the way people think of where oceans begin and end," Froyland told NBC News. "The interactions that we've shown between the different oceans shows that no ocean is isolated and that local effects can have impacts far from the source."

That's the "take-home message" of their work, according to van Sebille.

By better understanding the pattern of these currents and surface drift, conservationalists can devise a strategy for tackling the problem of oceanic pollution - a great challenge that not only includes floating trash heaps, but oil spills and chemical release as well.

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