A high-seas mission departs from San Francisco next month to map and explore a sinister and shifting 21st-century continent: one twice the size of Texas and created from six million tons of discarded plastic.

Scientists and conservationists on the expedition will begin attempts to retrieve and recycle a monument to throwaway living in the middle of the North Pacific — otherwise known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

The toxic soup of refuse was discovered in 1997 when Charles Moore, an oceanographer and racing sailor, decided to travel through the center of the North Pacific gyre (a vortex or circular ocean current).

Navigators usually avoid oceanic gyres because persistent high-pressure systems — also known as the doldrums — lack the winds and currents to benefit sailors.

Moore found bottle caps, plastic bags and polystyrene floating with tiny plastic chips.

Worn down by sunlight and waves, discarded plastic disintegrates into smaller pieces. Suspended under the surface, these tiny fragments are invisible to ships and satellites trying to map the plastic continent, but in subsequent trawls Moore discovered that the chips outnumbered plankton by six to one.

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