After hearing about the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” earlier this year — an area the size of Texas in the Pacific Ocean filled with trash — I went looking for it on Google Earth. And never found it. It’s not that the patch doesn’t exist. It’s just that despite being large, it’s not that visible from above.
I was disappointed in Google at first, for not having images of the patch. After all, the company made a big splash with Google Ocean earlier this year, a way to see more about the majority of our planet that’s covered with water. But while Google Earth is good for seeing under the ocean, why can’t I see more of what’s on top, such as this huge collection of garbage?
Google Ocean product manager Steve Miller emailed me this explanation earlier this year:
Regarding the availability of satellite imagery of the oceans: Unfortunately we haven’t found great sources of data for most of the open ocean because most imagery providers focus their efforts on the land. Where we do have satellite imagery for the ocean surface, we’ve preserved it in the most recent version of Google Earth and the satellite view in Maps. For example you can still see trawling vessels in southeast Asia. There are a number of potential applications for such imagery, from amateur interest in finding ships to looking at off-shore oil platforms to locating illegal fishing vessels, so it’s certainly worth exploring how we could track down data for the rest of the ocean.
Regarding the gyre: the trash gyre presents its own set of challenges. Even if we had satellite imagery, the gyre likely wouldn’t appear in it. Most of the plastic is particulate and/or a bit under the surface so you can’t see it in the imagery. A number of groups are starting to focus on collecting more data about the gyre via expeditions and sampling – we’d love to see one or more of them produce maps that could be viewed in Google Earth.
So there you go. A huge pile of trash collectively, but trash so small individually that the patch doesn’t show up.
Want to learn more about the Great Garbage Patch, also known as the Pacific Gyre? Wikipedia has an entry, and there’s an entire site with information about it: the Great Garbage Patch. I’d also recommend watching the video below from this year’s TED conference featuring Captain Charles Moore, who is credited with discovering the patch: