There are regions of the ocean where garbage and marine debris amass from the ebb and flow of the oceans’ currents. No matter where floating debris originates, a lot of it ends up drifting between five specific ocean gyres, also known as ocean garbage patches. In March, NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio published this video that gives a mesmerizing and helpful illustration of how ocean garbage patches function.

The visualization, which was a finalist in the American Association of the Advancement of Science’s Data Stories competition, used data the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration collected from more than 17,000 free-floating buoys released over 35 years—the buoys are represented by the white fluttering dots. NASA visualization scientist, Greg Shirah, points out how the buoys form different patterns. Some follow vessels and ships in straight lines and others scatter in the direction of the current. However, the dots eventually get caught in five distinct trash vortexes.     

Dazzling white dots show the movement of particles in the oceans’ currents.

Tracking the movement patterns of the buoys with visualizations like these help scientists better understand the areas of spinning debris. Ocean gyres are systems of circular ocean currents that form from Earth’s wind patterns and the forces created by the planet’s rotation, National Geographic explains.

Despite the name, garbage patches don’t look like islands of floating trash. The majority of the debris is comprised of non-biodegradable microplastics that are so tiny we often can’t see them with the naked eye. These plastics can disrupt marine food webs, and if enough of them collect at the ocean surface, microplastics can prevent sunlight from reaching plankton and algae that serve as a critical food source for many marine animals.  

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