Did You See This?

The Garbage Islands

How clever NASA detective work found vast collections of refuse far out to sea.

Before what appears to be part of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 floated ashore on Réunion this summer, more than a year of false reports pointed to another issue: the mysterious flow of refuse and debris in the oceans. Month after month, another piece of flotsam would appear, and month after month, it would prove to be part of a vast, unrelated network of sea-faring trash.

But this stuff isn’t floating around at random—it’s also forming massive, nearly invisible, garbage “islands” at five places in the world’s oceans. We don’t really know how big they are, since an estimated 70 percent of trash ends up sinking, and much of it is tiny bits of nonbiodegradable plastic floating out of sight, just below the surface. But this nasty soup is inarguably a threat to marine life and the health of our oceans.

NASA decided to visualize how these dumps are forming, and you can see what they learned in the video above.

NASA started out by tracking NOAA ocean buoys. There are lots of them, and NASA factored in how long each one been in the water and the location from which it was launched. It turns out ocean currents have collected most of them into five areas—and guess what those areas are? Inevitably, the same locations as the garbage islands.

To confirm its findings, NASA next took a look at a computer model of ocean currents. They set thousands of virtual particles adrift to see where they’d wind up. They ended up in exactly the same spots as the buoys. And the garbage.

Ocean trash largely gets launched by winds that blow it offshore, and from ships traversing the waters. By supporting beach-cleanup efforts and tighter standards for oceanic trash disposal, we can help, well, reverse this dangerous tide.