Message in a Bottle
Smithsonian Magazine Jul01
By studying objects cast up on our shores, researcher Curtis Ebbesmeyer traces the flow of ocean currents
Floatables of every sort—hockey gloves and life buoys, seedpods and bathtub toys—form the raw materials underlying oceanographer Ebbesmeyer’s investigations.
Scientists are studying ocean currents ever more intensely: they affect not only transportation but weather, biology, evolution and climate change. Most oceanographers use satellites and high-tech buoys for tracking currents. Researcher Curtis Ebbesmeyer does it the old-fashioned way—by studying movements of random junk. Part reporter and historian, part water physicist, he has sources everywhere, including his own vast, ragtag worldwide army of beachcombers.
His contributions to the literature range from the seminal to the semi-wacky, but we know one thing: he is probably the only scientist to have posed for People magazine mostly naked (grayed in the chest hairs, but looking good) in the pool with a floating bathtub ducky, a souvenir of one of his greatest research triumphs. Along the way, he has learned that ocean surface currents can be chaotically changeable; if two bathtub toys are dumped, say, from a freighter in the middle of the Pacific at the same moment in the same spot, one may wash up in Hawaii while the other may end up frozen in an Arctic ice floe.
Each of the oceans is home to one or more huge gyres, formed by the major surface current systems. These currents, shown above in their average locations and directions, are driven primarily by prevailing winds and Earth’s rotation.
Ebbesmeyer entered the world of floating junk in 1991, when he read about Nike sneakers drifting onto shore in Alaska, and decided to track them down, along with their source and the currents that carried them. He has since founded the nonprofit Beachcombers' and Oceanographers' International Association, complete with the Beachcombers' Alert! newsletter (500 paid subscribers from as far as West Africa and New Zealand) and its own Website (www.beachcombers.org). The organization has documented spills of everything from onions to hockey gloves.
"Pacific Toy Spill Fuels Ocean Current Pathways Research" by Curtis C. Ebbesmeyer and W. James Ingraham, Jr., Eos, American Geophysical Union, September 13, 1994
Beachcombers’ Alert! (quarterly newsletter), Beachcombers’ and
Oceanographers’ International Association, 6306 21st Street, NE, Seattle,
Washington 98115; www.beachcombers.org
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