We’ve all heard of the ocean garbage patches that are swirling out at sea, but it can be hard to visualize just how these patches form and grow. The data visualization wizards at NASA have come up with a way to show the world how and where garbage collects in our oceans and ultimately, what the ocean’s garbage patches might look like in 20 years. Lead animator Greg Shirah and chief data cruncher Horace Mitchell combined two data models to show how trash ends up collecting in the ocean’s five big garbage patches, also called gyres.
The first visualization in the video takes data from buoys distributed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration which track ocean currents, temperature and salinity. Using the data, they programmed the drifting buoys to appear as if they’d all been dropped in the ocean at the same time. Fast forwarding their movement showed if the buoys didn’t wash up onshore or disintegrate, they gathered in one of the garbage patches.
The NASA team then created a model to simulate the movement of garbage particles via ocean currents 20 years into the future. The particles represent the real garbage in our oceans, which breaks down into minuscule pieces over time. Again, with this model, garbage that didn’t litter the world’s beaches ended up in the oceans’ gyres. A single pattern emerged from two sources of data – one real and one imagined – giving weight to the team’s original simulated data model and showing the path that garbage travels in our oceans.