Search for MH370 shines spotlight on trash-strewn oceans - WECT, weather & sports Wilmington, NC

Search for MH370 shines spotlight on trash-strewn oceans

U.S. military personnel and residents of Diego Garcia, in the Indian Ocean, cleaned up 4,100 pounds of trash in a beach cleanup in 2012. (Source:  Seaman Eric A. Pastor/U.S. Navy) U.S. military personnel and residents of Diego Garcia, in the Indian Ocean, cleaned up 4,100 pounds of trash in a beach cleanup in 2012. (Source: Seaman Eric A. Pastor/U.S. Navy)

(RNN) – It's been quite a pattern of frustration for investigators looking for a trace of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Satellites and searchers locate debris in the Indian Ocean, only to discover that the objects are not related to the flight at all, complicating an already tricky search for the plane missing since March 8.

All of the world's oceans are cluttered with debris. Even the most remote places on the globe have been touched by the stuff humans toss, including the search site in a remote area of the Indian Ocean.

Five large gyres of junk swirl in the world's oceans, the largest of which is located in the north Pacific Ocean, according to NOAA. A gyre is a spiraling ocean current.

That gyre "spans an area roughly twice the size of the U.S.," though its size and shape fluctuates, the nonprofit organization 5 Gyres stated.

Smaller gyres also exist off the coast of Alaska and Antarctica, though researchers don't know yet just how much trash lurks in the oceans.

Because it's located far away from population areas, the Indian Ocean gyre is not as well researched as some of the other gyres.

However, large amounts of trash have reached distant mid-ocean islands such as Christmas, Cocos and Diego Garcia, according to a report by David K.A. Barnes of the British Antarctic Survey.

"Hermit crabs on such remote Indian Ocean shores are even starting to use debris instead of the more usual gastropod shells as the debris is so abundant," Barnes noted.

The trash collects in gyres through the action of meanders and eddies in the oceans, influenced by the interaction between surfaces and surface waves, according to NOAA.

Debris in the world's waters is carried from land via storm drains and sewers into streams, as well as from shoreline and recreational activities.

"Today, there is no place on Earth immune to this problem," NOAA said in its special section devoted to ocean pollution.

Marine trash includes abandoned fishing gear, derelict vessels and plastics.

"Abandoned or discarded fishing gear is also a major problem because this trash can entangle, injure, maim and drown marine wildlife and damage property," NOAA stated.

Thousands of scuttled vessels can be found in areas such as ports and estuaries, threatening navigation and polluting the environment.

Plastics are dangerous for sea creatures because, when eaten, the material can block the digestive system, causing creatures to dehydrate, starve and die.

NOAA noted that most plastics are intended for temporary use, yet plastic litter doesn't really go away. It merely breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces, into microplastics of less than 5 millimeters in length, some pieces even microscopic.

"Cetaceans, all sea turtle species, and a growing list of fish species have been documented with plastic in or around their bodies," 5 Gyres noted.

Plastic debris collects pollutants such as polychlorinated biphenyls "up to 100,000 to 1 million times the levels found in seawater," according to NOAA.

The jury is still out as to what affect plastics will ultimately have on the animals further up the food chain.

The ocean trash problem is immense, and has been building up for decades with the rise of disposable packaging. However, people can make an impact locally by properly disposing of trash, opting for reusable items and recycling what they can.

Those on the coast can take action against ocean debris by picking up their cell phones.

People can report marine debris through a Marine Debris Tracker app developed by the University of Georgia and NOAA and available through the Android Market.

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