Earth  ID: 4375

Garbage Patch Visualization Experiment

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You may have heard of "ocean garbage patches," areas in the ocean where litter and debris concentrates. This might stir up a vivid image of large blanketed areas of trash on the ocean surface that are easy to spot. But that’s not the case. Much of the debris consists of smaller pieces of plastic that are always moving and changing with the ocean currents, waves and winds. These can be difficult to see and predict. We set out to explore the processes and interactions that cause debris to flow to these patches using buoy and model data, and created a visualization based on our results.

We started with data from floating, scientific buoys that NOAA has been distributing in the oceans for the last 35-years, represented in our visualization as white dots. These buoys are used to track currents, temperature and salinity, and all of this data is publicly available.

In the visualization, we can speed up time to see where the buoys travelled. But because new buoys are continually released, it was hard to see where the older buoys moved. Once we cleared the map and added the starting locations of all the buoys we started to pick up on interesting patterns all over world. For example, lines of buoys began to appear along shipping and plane routes because these were the vessels used to periodically release buoys.

The next step was to shift the timing of each buoy data set to release the buoys all at the same time to observe buoy migration patterns. You’ll notice that the number of buoys shown decreases over time, because some buoys don't last as long as others (they either wash up on the shores of coastlines, disintegrate, sink, experience technical failure etc.) When projected onto the same visualization, we noticed that the buoys migrated to five known gyres, or locations that some call the ‘ocean garbage patches,’ where debris or litter accumulate in certain pockets of the ocean.

We can also see this pattern in a computer model of ocean currents called ECCO-2. We released simulated particles evenly around the world, letting the modeled currents carry the particles. The particles from the model also migrate to the same five ocean garbage patches as the NOAA buoys. Even though the retimed buoys and modeled particles did not react to currents at the same times, the fact that the data tends to accumulate in the same regions helps validate the result.

-- Greg Shirah, Development Lead – Earth Science-Related Visualizations (NASA GSFC Scientific Visualization Studio)



For More Information

Earth Science Week 2015 Gallery

Aquarium of the Pacific for Science

Visualization Credits

Greg Shirah (NASA/GSFC): Author
Leann Johnson (Global Science and Technology, Inc.): Project Support
Please give credit for this item to:
NASA's Scientific Visualization Studio

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