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Images: Plastic Particles Permeate the Atlantic

The Sea Education Association, based in Woods Hole, Mass., takes undergraduate students aboard its ships, such as the Corwith Cramer shown here, every year for a 12-week SEA Semester program. (Photo courtesy of Kara Lavender Law, SEA)

During SEA Semester voyages, students and crew routinely tow nets along the surface twice a day to collect biological samples and plastic debris. (Photo courtesy of Kara Lavender Law, SEA)

The nets have 1-meter-wide mouths. Each net tow runs for 1 nautical mile (1.85 kilometers), sampling from an area of 1,850 square meters. The volume of water filtered through a net during a tow is about 122,000 gallons—enough to fill 2,000 bathtubs. (Photo courtesy of Kara Lavender Law, SEA)

After each net tow, students painstakingly pick out, collect, weigh, and measure plastic particles trapped in the nets. Between 1986 and 2008, roughly 64,000 pieces of plastic were collected by 7,000 undergraduates from  6,100 net tows. (Photo courtesy of Kara Lavender Law, SEA)

The vast majority of plastics collected by scientists in the Atlantic Ocean were not large bottles, but particles measured in millimeters. (Photo by Tom Kleindinst, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

Cruise tracks of SEA voyages over the past two decades show that the ships covered a wide swath of the western North Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea. They collected plastic debris all along the way. Colors represent various SEA Semester cruise tracks, illustrating a typical year of sailing in
the Atlantic/Caribbean.

(Map courtesy of Kara Lavender Law, SEA)

Red and yellow areas indicate where scientists found high concentrations of plastic. About 83 percent of all the plastic debris collected was concentrated in the North Atlantic subtropical gyre, a part of the ocean bounded by a series of wind-driven currents, such as the Gulf Stream, that collectively flow clockwise around the subtropical North Atlantic. The gyre is marked by the black-line contour. Outside the contour, currents are strong; within the contour, water moves slowly, about 2 centimeters per second. (Courtesy of Chris Reddy, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

Plastic particles collected on SEA cruises were analyzed by marine chemists at WHOI, including Chris Reddy and Ellen Murphy, above. The scientists made intriguing discoveries about what happens to plastics in the ocean. (Photo by Tom Kleindinst, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)