by Blake Newton, UK Extension Entomologist
People are starting to hear more and more about the so-called Great Garbage Patch of the North Pacific Gyre. This is a massive, swirling cesspool of garbage located in the Pacific ocean north of Hawaii. It is said to be as large as the state of Texas! Whoa. Here is a link to the Wikipedia entry for the garbage patch.
The size-estimate may end up being an exaggeration, but the garbage patch is certainly big, and it looks like this phenomenon could be one of the greatest environmental disasters of all time. Much of the garbage consists of non-biodegradable post-consumer plastics, and there is concern that this stuff is turning this part of the ocean into a dead zone. It's interesting to see, though, that some life is still able to thrive in this environment, including crabs--close relatives of insects. I saw one of these crabs while watching this video about the garbage patch on CNN. You can also see a picture of some crabs crawling around on the garbage at this blog entry from Seaplex, an ocean expedition that is studying the garbage patch.
I suspect that as we learn more about the garbage patch, we will find several organisms that are able to live there.
UPDATE: Miriam Goldstein sent us an interesting message about this post in the comments-section below, but I thought I'd highlight the message here:
"There are several organisms that can make a living right on the plastic. They're part of what in the ocean is termed the "fouling community" - the macro-organisms that grow on artificial surfaces like ships and docks and little bits of plastic. By having all that debris floating around, these species (like pigeons and rats) grow much more abundant than they would have been without plastic debris to live on.
"It's not necessarily a good thing to have a huge fouling community - it's thought that many might be invasive species, or that they might alter the natural planktonic food web. Those crabs are part of the fouling community - they are what's known as epipelagic crabs, crabs adapted to living on floating wood or pumice in the open ocean, and now plastic. There are a LOT of them in the gyre, and we don't know what impact adding all those crabs has on the ecosystem."