Word of the day: Gyre

by Megan Bayliss | October 18, 2016 6:40 am

Picture of the South Pacific gyre taken from Sea Friends http://www.seafriends.org.nz/issues/res/pk/ecology.htm
Picture of the South Pacific gyre taken from Sea Friends http://www.seafriends.org.nz/issues/res/pk/ecology.htm

Gyre: Swirl this word into your conversations and sound super switched on.

A Gyre is a swirl of ocean current and wind patterns. In places where winds blow always in the same direction, permanent currents are created. The combination of the ocean current and wind create a swirling vortex: a circular movement like a slow-moving cyclone in the ocean - a gyre.

There are five BIG gyres across the world's oceans:

North Atlantic Gyre
South Atlantic Gyre
Indian Ocean Gyre
North Pacific Gyre (commonly called the North Pacific Garbage Patch - the largest garbage dump in the world.)
South Pacific Gyre (too close to the Great Barrier Reef and in my back yard!)

Now here's the bad bit: Litter that enters our oceans (mostly from land -only a small percentage comes from ships and boats) finds its way into a gyre and is unfortunately kept in place, swirling around and around in that gyre. The washing machine of a gyre, pushes anything caught in it (litter) toward the centre where it spins more slowly.

Unable to get out of the vortex because it is caught in a spinning whirlpool, the ocean litter, stays in the ocean having a nice little merry-go-round ride, around and around the gyre, getting smaller and smaller as big bits break off.

Submerged, in cold water and often protected from sunlight because of other rubbish above it, much ocean waste does not readily break down. In fact, plastic NEVER totally breaks down. It eventually breaks into millions of tiny pieces: microplastics and at the nth degree of breakdown become jelly like in nature: toxic to the max.

There are well documented garbage dumps in our oceans that have become toxic soup: two gyres that have swirled together so much rubbish that the waste covers an ocean area larger than the size of Texas.

Much of this ocean litter is plastic: bottles, lids, straws, packets....things we use everyday and throw out or walk over on the street without ever thinking about where they may end up.

You need to fully understand and accept that the chemical compound of plastic is toxic: poison. In the salt water, plastic acts like a magnet and attracts more toxins to itself. It becomes more toxic than if on land.

Marine species (fish, birds and even the tiny cellular creatures that the human eye cannot see) mistake the plastic as food, eat the increased toxins and mutate, or die.

The smaller marine creatures eat the tiny fragments of chemical-laden plastic, mistaking them for phytoplankton. In a process called bio-accumulation, toxic compounds build up in an organism at a rate faster than they can be broken down, thus impacting the food chain from bottom to top. Eventually, these harmful substances wind up in the seafood on our dinner plates and we fall trap to bio-accumulation too.

Other animals (e.g. sea turtles and birds) eat the bigger bits of plastic. Without taste buds, the animals do not know it is not food. They are merely attracted by movement and colour in the water. The larger bits of colourful and moving plastic cannot be digested and of course have zero nutritional benefit. With no room left for their normal food, the poor animals starve to death, their stomachs engorged with plastic.

Dead bird full of plastic (photo Chris Jordan).
Dead bird full of plastic (photo Chris Jordan)

The great Laysan Albatross, barometers of our planet, unwittingly feed plastic to their young, causing them to die of starvation, too. Once the chick dies and its body decomposes, all that remains is the plastic, which is then washed back into the ocean where it will continue to cause harm.

So, there you have it. May the word Gyre be forever etched in your mind and on your heart. Pick up plastic off the street, in the park, on the beach, WHEREVER you see it. DO NOT let that plastic enter the ocean and get picked up by a gyre.

Keep talking garbage; it is a really dirty subject that has to be addressed.

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