Posted by: Anna Webb | May 31, 2009

Is East Side Vog and an Oceanic Landfill Connected?

Vog with less than 1/2 mile visibility   

Vog with less than 1/2 mile visibility


Heavy vog continued on the East Side of Hawai’i’s Big Island until yesterday. It’s not been too heavy this past week down at what I call the “triangle” area – the SE coast from Kalapana to Kapoho and up toward Pahoa. However, at about 5oo feet elevation, it begins getting thick and continues up toward Kea’au and Hilo.

Thursday I went into Hilo and it was the worst I’ve seen it in the 4 years I’ve lived here. I don’t know how anyone else feels about it, but I’m concerned about the low pressure systems that have become comfortable sitting north/north east of the islands. It’s been happening on and off (mostly on) for the better part of 2009.


What are trade winds? Trade winds also known as “trades” is an easterly pattern of air flow near the equator. In Hawai’i these winds prevail on the windward side of the islands and are responsible for regular rainfall and fresh air. It is considered the cleanest air on Earth since it crosses 2600 miles of ocean on its way to the islands and on to the equator. The ocean cleans pollution and carbon dioxide from the air on this journey.

Why is this important to the Big Island? Rainfall and dispersion of volcanic emission is the main importance of the trade winds. In a normal flow, volcanic emissions have a good 90 mile span before reaching the Kailua-Kona area. This allows it to mix with fresh air on the way. During an abnormal air flow, emissions reach Hilo and Puna districts within a few miles. There is no fresh air flow to mix with it and it’s heavy and nasty. Combine unseasonably warm temperatures with this and it feels like a mainland industrial city in the dead of August with pollution trapped in a humid, stagnant dome.

I’m not a meteorologist. And, certainly a meteorologist could explain things much better than I can. I’m an “armchair” weather analyst and I’d certainly like to know if there is any significant changes within the Pacific Ocean currents. We know that the North Atlantic ocean current (Gulf stream) is now flowing at less than 25% of it’s original strength due to melting fresh water glaciers. It’s having a dramatic effect on weather patterns in North America, Europe and Africa. 

The Pacific Ocean covers 1/3 of Earth’s surface. The world’s second largest ocean current (after the Gulf stream) is the Kuroshio Current which is found in the Western Pacific region off the coast of Taiwan. It interacts with the Oyashio current in the Northern Pacific region off the shore of Japan to form the North Pacific current. In the past twenty years, observations have been made of this current “moving” periodically. It is thought this movement is due to el Nino and la Nina events but the cause hasn’t been fully determined. The Pacific current connects with two other Pacific Ocean currents and then to the Atlantic or Gulf stream current through smaller southern hemisphere currents in Australia, Indonesia and India. This creates the entire “Global Conveyor Belt” – the world’s interconnected ocean current. 


The Global Conveyor Belt

The Global Conveyor Belt

Notice the loop in the top left corner of this graph. That forms what is called the North Pacific Gyre where the deep ocean current (blue line) hooks up with the surface ocean current (red line).

This brings up a question that has been “niggling” at me. I’d like to know if the oceanic garbage dump discovered floating in the North Pacific that is at least twice the size of Texas is affecting climate patterns. Oh, you hadn’t heard of it? Read this article:

I hardly call a landfill (or waterfill) of that magnitude a “patch”, but I suppose I missed the “Name that Dump” contest. If deep and surface ocean current meet in this area and ocean currents and weather are interconnected, well, it makes sense to me that this has to have some level of effect on weather patterns. After all, it weighs an estimated 3.5 million pounds. While there are plenty people researching its effect on ocean life, birds, etc. what I wonder is: Is anyone out there researching its effect, if any, on weather patterns?

Within the North Pacific Gyre, 4 ocean currents meet in a vortex and this traps the trash. The trash is located 1,000 miles off the coast of California and 1,000 miles north of the Hawaiian Islands. The islands appear to sit within the NPG if you look on this map. 

North Pacific Gyre - World Map

North Pacific Gyre - World Map

Again, I’m no meteorologist but I’m just sayin’….from my armchair view it looks suspiciously like it could be a contributor to the trapped, long lasting low pressure systems that continue to draw up weather systems from southwest of the islands and block the easterly tradewinds coming into the islands. And, if this is the case then I hope a researcher somewhere is jumping on this to find out.

If not, and anomalous shifts in wind direction just happens for lengths at a time periodically then “so be it”. But when neighbors who’ve lived here for 20 years express concern because this is the worst they’ve observed vog on the East side of Hawai’i’s Big Island, it prompts me to try to look at a “bigger picture” than just a periodic odd weather pattern. And when I look at the bigger picture and see a massive multi-national trash dump sitting between us and San Francisco – it’s one of those things that make you go Hmmmmm…..


  1. Anna, this is the best thought out article I have read about the weather patterns we have been experiencing lately… You just might have something there concerning that ‘floating dump’ sitting above our island chain and the missing trades. Honomu is usually at least 5-10 degrees cooler than Hilo and we have been having higher temperatures than normal for this time of year.

  2. Very interesting point Anna… Makes one look at “trash” in a different way.
    I wonder if they will ever attempt to “clean” this up? Where to put it?
    It’s a shame though, when you describe it.. sure does paint a picture better than any other article I’ve read about it.

  3. A thought after reading Michelle’s comment. I wonder if most of the trash that formed the ‘floating dump’ was generated by the trash emptied by cruise lines and other seafearing ships? If so, I wonder if there is any way they could be made responsible for cleaning it?

  4. In one article I read while researching for this blog piece, it stated that approx. 80% of it is land generated trash and 20% marine trash.

    It looks like a multi-national conglomeration of “out of sight, out of mind” disposal. It’s a global issue at this point.

  5. This is a very informative and thoughtfully written article. I have been interested in learning more about the variables affecting the weather and air quality of this beautiful, ever dynamic, ever expanding island. As an individual who enjoys kayaking, I have noticed the increase in floating debris/trash, which I always try to pick up. Additionally, as an educator and someone keenly interested in environmental issues, I vaguely recall reading about the “floating dump”. Anna’s article has truly highlighted the need for all educators, as well as the general public, to become better informed. In order to make a difference in the way people think about garbage and trash (and the over consumption that generates it), they need to be made keenly aware of the far reaching global impact of shortsighted, purportedly, “out of sight” waste disposal methods.

  6. Thank you Michelle and Mary. Michelle, as I mentioned in my reply to Sonia, the trash is “collective” from Asia and the U.S. at least and is mostly “land trash”.
    In the articles and information I read, there is no plan for clean-up and “no way” to clean it up. Does any country have a spare state or province in which to put the trash once collected?
    If this trash had gone to its proper landfills in its respective countries, people would be more aware of our disposal methods, as Mary points out. In addition, people would be more mindful of what they throw in the trash.
    Until countries decide to make this issue a priority, the best we can do is recycle and educate ourselves on alternative methods of waste disposal.
    I co-moderate the Freecycle Big Island yahoo group. I recommend everyone join the Freecycle group in their local community. They are all across the U.S. and in other countries. If there isn’t one in your city, consider creating one. Write your representatives so that this becomes as much a priority as healthcare and the economy for its effects will ripple into those areas soon enough.
    Thanks for reading my blog.

  7. Anna – wonderful article and very well written if you don’t mind me saying so!

    I’m not a meteorologist either (my father was though!) but the recent vog on the east side of the island has had me thinking about what’s going on for quite a while. Personally, I don’t think there’s a connection between the garbage patch and the vog, but you can never rule out anything in such a complex system.

    I like to go for the simpler explanation: firstly, we’ve been in La Nina conditions for quite a while. They were predicted to last through June this year although I believe we might be out of the condition now. I blogged about La Nina a month or two ago but am too lazy to find the post! Anyway, La Nina is likely to mess up typical Pacific weather systems hence the unseasonal weather in the islands up until now.

    Secondly, Kilauea is active in two spots (three if you include the ocean entry). For the first time in decades the summit is active and spewing out an awful lot of gas and dust. In other words, there’s more volcanic crud in the lower atmosphere than we’ve had to deal with in several years.

    I think you can simply couple these two events and argue that’s why Puna and Hilo have had such bad vog conditions recently – certainly the worst I’ve experienced since moving here 13 years ago!

    Having said all that, the garbage patch is a big problem and not an easy one to fix.


  8. I like your explanation better, Tom. And, it does make sense.

    The rains are back and we’re likely to get happy and comfortable again. I’m hoping that the floating dump doesn’t affect climate and that my article simply remains a question.
    Thanks for the nice comment and you can “say so” any time you like!


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