advice from a fake consultant

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Tuesday, July 3, 2007

On Lost Cargo, Or, Talk About A Dual-Use Technology

I come before you today with an amazing story of drifting stuff that proves the truth of the saying “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”

A story that, in more than one way, reminds us all that we are far more connected than we might otherwise believe.

A story, believe it or not, that centers around lost toys and shoes-and a story that has become perhaps the most serendipitous episode in the history of oceanography.

“URGENT. Vessel proceeding LSATAC in heavy, confused swell with approximate height 8-9 meters. Wind approximately 30-40 knots on the port quarter. Departure GM was 6.0 meters [vessel’s center of gravity]. Both stabilizers were deployed. Speed approximately 19 knots. At 2018 LT [6:18 p.m. local time] – 0418 UTC December 15th, vessel took two very heavy rolls, approximately 20 degrees to each side very fast, which caused 10 containers to fall overboard and 6 others to capsize. Position: 39°53’N, 124°44’W. U.S. Coast Guard Humbolt Bay Group informed on VHF radio immediately after incident. All boxes loaded in Bay 66, port side Rows 06 to 16 in KAO for TAC discharge. Rows 4-15 were loaded with LSA cargo.”

And with that message, oceanography got another Christmas present.

The thing is, oceanographers know more about deep current flows than they do about the currents at the ocean’s surface. As it turns out, the best way to study the currents is to release a floating object at a known point...and see where it ends up.

It’s not easy, as you might expect-only about 2% of “drift bottles” or “drift cards” (the scientific names for “floating objects we sent away on purpose”) released are ever recovered; and the total numbers released are relatively small. In fact, the chart located on the linked page shows only 663 bottles recovered in the North Pacific from 1960 to 1966 (a typical release today is 500-1000 bottles). Here’s more from 1940’s and ‘50’s Australian research.

But on the night of December 15th, 2002, when the spilled containers broke open, 33,000 new oceanographic measuring tools were released into the Pacific Ocean, in the form of Nike EZW men’s basketball shoes.

By January of 2003 John Anderson of Forks, Washington had found two of the shoes-a 10.5 and an 8.5. Both are left shoes. Additional reports of 14 more Nikes were made during the next week, and it was determined that the shoes had drifted 850 nautical miles in 72 days-from northern California to the Queen Charlotte Islands.

At this point in the story, allow me to introduce Dr. Curtis C. Ebbesmeyer, “retired” oceanographer, and W. James Ingraham Jr., of the National Marine Fisheries Service. Working together with a network of beachcombers (are you reading Beachcombers’ Alert?), they have managed to use the data from these recoveries to fine tune the OSCURS (Ocean Surface CURrent Simulator) model used to predict ocean current flows at the surface.

Now that’s a pretty cool story, but it’s hardly the coolest of the “accidental drift bottles” stories.

This one is.

On the very stormy night of January 10th, 1992, where the 45th Parallel meets the International Date Line (a bit south of the Aleutian Islands, a bit west of the Kamchatka Peninsula), 28,800 plastic tub toys were accidentally released into the distant Pacific from a container that slipped off a ship (one of as many as 50 that may be adrift in the seas at any one time) headed from China to Tacoma, Washington.

And in the summer of 2007, having traveled 17,000 miles across the world’s oceans, these plastic ducks, turtles, beavers, and frogs are going to visit the UK.

And that’s not even the most amazing part.
This is the most amazing part:

The toys accomplished this feat by traveling across the Arctic, from the Pacific to the Atlantic, as part of the pack ice.

How could this happen?

First, the toys had to get to Alaska, and 10 months after washing overboard, near Sitka, Alaska, they did. (About 400 have been recovered in the Sitka area over the years.) At that point, however, there were some options for the toys.

One option was to be caught up in the “Subpolar Gyre”, a rotating current that carries objects on a 6800 mile circuit from Alaska to Siberia and back more or less every three years-and seems to have carried some of the toys for as many as five “circuits” around the Gyre (there’s a Subpolar Gyre in the Atlantic as well, and we’ll be talking about it later); another was to get carried through the Bearing Straits into the Chukchi Sea -and a third option was to be caught in the Subtropical Gyre, which is how Walt Pich ended up finding a beaver and a frog on Hawaii’s Lanai Island in March of 1997.

And some of those plastic toys did journey first into the Bering Strait, and next the Chukchi Sea (a 3500 mile journey from the point of the original spill), across the northern coast of Alaska, until they hit the Artic pack ice. Now you might think that this would be the end of the story; but it turns out that the pack ice travels on its own journey past the North Pole, passing above the Siberian coast, until the ice, and its tub toys, emerged into the open ocean east of Greenland in 2003.

Let’s pause in our travelogue for a moment, and return to our discussion of oceanography. The toys have been useful, for starters, in testing the OSCURS model’s estimates of current, speed, and windage adjustments that were made as the toys completed each cycle of the Gyre. The Grye’s habit of depositing a few of the flock on Alaska’s beaches more or less on schedule, with the assistance of the Nike spill for confirmation, has turned out to be the source of a major portion of the scientific world’s available ocean current data as it relates to the Pacific.

But what about the Atlantic?

When we last left the toys, it was 2003 and the newly freed flotilla was drifting south, with Greenland to their right, and Scandinavia to the left; and it was time to meet the North Atlantic Sub-Polar Gyre. Rather than being captured by the Gyre, and “stalled” in the North Atlantic; the flotilla made it all the way past the United States East Coast, took a U-turn a bit north of Cuba, and...well, first, let’s address a point now before we lose the chance.

The flotilla made it all the way past the United States East Coast.
Despite the Gulf Stream.

This suggests that what I understood about the movement of deep-ocean currents versus surface currents is even less than I would have thought; had you asked me a week ago.

So back to the ducks.

They are on the home stretch of a run to Ireland, and by extension Scotland and the Western UK, because they are moving into the grasp of the North Atlantic Current; which should carry the toys to either the Norweigan coast or a westward trip across the Atlantic-and another likely rendezvous with the US and Canada.

This is hardly the only-or the largest- of the “scientific spillages”, There have been spills of hockey gloves, lots more shoes, and (my favorite) an Atlantic spill of 4.7 million Legos.

Which bring us to a final comment about connectivity: I became aware of this story as a result of a posting on Colin Campbell’s “Adelaide Green Porridge Café” (“a nice place to live”, he reports). The Australian site linked me to a London newspaper which told me about a story that’s going on off the coast of Alaska-which isn’t all that far from my own home. These are amazing times, indeed.

So if you find yourself, this summer, in Kilkee, or Ballyshannon, or Stornoway-or Sitka, for that matter-get down to the beach and see if you can’t find a toy.

If you do, don’t forget to tell Dr. Ebbesmeyer.

AUTHOR"S NOTE: The school lunch series of stories (here and here) will resume after the US holiday weekend, so stay tuned for more news when I return either Thursday or Friday.


Liz said...

I read about Dr Ebbesmeyer and wrote in my blog too.

It's fascinating, isn't it?

fake consultant said...

the floating plastic you mention in your story seems to be worthy of it's own discussion; and when i put this story together i debated whether i wanted to include that as part of the conversation.

out of curiousity, will you be visiting any likely "duck beaches" next month?

Unpremeditated said...

Genuinely fascinating stuff. I'll certainly keep a look out for floating footwear on my upcoming holiday ... though I bet none of it's in my size.

fake consultant said...

maybe you'll come home with a lego starter set-there are 4.7 million potential lucky winners in that "lottery"...

along the same lines, i had this odd thought. there are 50 shipping containers reported to be floating about at any one time. could this become a new form of treasure hunting, where you take a boat and try to locate and empty a valuable container at sea?

by the way, i really like your work on "as a dodo"...both the concept and execution are brilliant ("brilliant" in the british sense), and it is truly a pleasure to read.