Plastic 'Trash Islands' Forming In Ocean Garbage Patch

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch may be developing permanent features, such as trash islands.

After returning from the Transpacific Yacht Race - an annual sailboat race from Los Angeles to Honolulu - in 1997, Capt. Charles Moore was guiding his boat through the doldrums when he noticed some plastic debris floating in the water.

Though it didn't seem like an overwhelming amount of trash, he recorded log entries every hour, noting the bits of debris in the water. Toothbrushes. Bottle caps. Eel traps. Floating nets. Soap bottles. On and on it went.

Given that he was in the Pacific Ocean, halfway between California and Hawaii, with nothing nearby, it was odd to find such a long stretch of trash, Moore said.

PHOTOS: Earth Shots: Must-See Planet Pics (July 18)

"It's the most remote part of our world," Moore told Live Science.

When he reached solid land, Moore told scientists about what he found, then returned two years later to assess the extent of the garbage patch using more scientific sampling methods.

And thus began the story of the great Pacific garbage patch, a swath of plastic debris, chemical sludge and other trash the size of Texas that is trapped in a vortex between ocean currents. [See Images of the Pacific's Trash Island]

More trash Now, 15 years later Moore has returned to the garbage patch, along with five other people, to track its extent once again and study its impact on marine life. The expedition is part of Moore's organization, Algalita Marine Research Institute, a nonprofit focused on reducing marine plastic pollution. People can learn more about Moore's voyage at the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium in San Pedro, California, on Sunday (July 20), where he will be answering questions from his boat via a live satellite webcast.

One thing they've discovered so far is that there may be more trash on the ocean surface than previously thought. A 2014 study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that the ocean's plastic may be mysteriously disappearing, with much less debris in the water than had been predicted, based on the global rates of plastic production and disposal.

BLOG: Small Plastics Pose Big Problem

But that estimate relied on trawling for trash with nets. On his current trip, Moore did a similar 4.5-mile (7.2 kilometer) trawl of the ocean, but also used drones to assess the extent of trash from above.

"We found 100 times more plastic by weight with the drone, than we estimated from the trawl," Moore said.

The team is also studying the impact of the plastic on marine life. So far, they have found that about 35 percent of the fish they sampled have swallowed some plastic, Moore said.

Plastic island The team has also found more permanent fixtures in the garbage patch's landscape. For instance, the team has discovered a "trash island" more than 50 feet (15 meters) long, with "beaches," a "rocky coastline," and "underwater mountains" and reefs made up of ropes, buoys and other plastic debris, Moore said.

Mussels, clams, sea anemones and seaweed were found sheltering on this artificial island, Moore said.

PHOTOS: Life on the Ocean Floor Garbage Patch

Moore speculates that the island formed after the tsunami that battered Japan in 2011 swept a tremendous amount of ropes, buoys, mooring lines and anchors out to sea from Asian aquaculture farms that were harvesting mussels and oysters.

"It's showing signs of permanence," Moore said. "There will be a new floating world in our oceans if we don't stop polluting with plastics."

More From LiveScience:

Original article on Live Science

Copyright 2014 LiveScience, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

About 15 years after first discovering the great Pacific garbage patch, Capt. Charles Moore returned in 2014 and discovered that semi-permanent islands made of ropes, buoys and other detritus were forming in the region.

When astronauts looked out the window of the International Space Station in early July, they noticed a swirling mass of clouds over the Atlantic Ocean, which turned out to be the beginning of a tropical storm and, later, Hurricane Arthur.

VIDEO: Why Are Hurricanes with Female Names More Deadly?

We already know that rising temperatures can disrupt the migratory patterns of birds. But a new study by Oregon State University researchers reveals that changes in rainfall caused by climate change are causing drastic declines in populations of birds such as the rufous hummingbird, pictured above.

BLOG: New Dinosaur Was Built Like An Airplane

Puma, a drone aircraft used by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration researchers, captured this colorful image of a small island in Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. The black dots are sea turtles and monk seals.

NEWS: Picture This: Scenes From Earth (June 2014)

A new study by Australian researchers reports that tropical fish such as this unicornfish are shifting into temperate areas to avoid warming waters, and destroying kelp forests and seagrass meadows by overgrazing. The invaders are plaguing the waters in southern Japan and the eastern Mediterranean.

PHOTOS: Biofluorescent Fish Light Up the Deep

A NASA satellite captured this startling image of smoke from forest fires in Canada's Northwest Territories drifting southward. The red icons indicate the location of the fires.

PHOTOS: Earth Perspectives Through The Ages

U.S. Department of the Interior officials recently announced that the wood stork has been down-listed from endangered to threatened, thanks to 30 years of protection efforts.

Earth Shots: Must-See Planet Pics (June 30)