In 1992, a shipping container carrying 28,000 rubber-duck-type bathtub toys was lost at sea. Children wept. Mothers reassured, saying China would make more.
And it did, but that original loss has gone on to point the way for the world’s oceanographers to discover the nature of ocean currents, because every year since that loss the rubber bathtub toys (red beavers, green frogs, blue turtles and yellow ducks) have been washing up in such distant places as the U.S. and Australia.
Called the “Friendly Floatees” by a group of people who track their movements and the locations where they are found, these tub toys have provided the means by which scientists reach a fuller understanding of the ocean’s gyres, or whirlpools, the most famous of which is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
At least that is what Curtis Ebbesmeyer believes. Ebbesmeyer, an oceanographer celebrating his retirement years in Seattle by continuing to work in the field he loves best, actually thought the “release” might be a research benefit, since most tracking releases involved 500 to 1,000 bottles, usually called “drifters” and equipped with data-collecting instrumentation, transmitters and GPS locators. With a recovery rate of 2 percent, this means the usual 10 to 20 bottles would instead amount to upward of 500 colorful, easy-to-spot tub toys.
And it did, offering Ebbesmeyer and his team to consider the 2,000 Friendly Floatees that now occupy the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (also known as the North Pacific Gyre), offering object lessons in long it takes ocean-going junk to complete a circuit and end up in the virtually inescapable pull of an ocean gyre.
The Floatees also tell scientists – and concerned humans – about the degradation timeline for various substances, notably plastic, which makes up the majority of the debris.
Let’s think about that degradation. “Natural” products like metal, cloth and paper degrade over time into their constituent elements, providing an unattractive mess but few truly toxic byproducts to hamper wildlife, whether it is on land or in the ocean.
Not so plastic, that ubiquitous, manmade substance that, more than any other, marks the culmination of civilization in a product that does not break down, but instead ends up in gyres in six to one ratios, killing the ocean’s species by filling their bellies with seeming bulk that in fact causes starvation and dehydration.
Other effects from plastics like BPA are just now being discovered, but if scientists’ surmise proves true, in 50 years the ocean’s major species – whales, seals, dolphins and otters – won’t be able to reproduce, leaving nothing but floating islands of plastic-based garbage to mark the spots where once some of the planet’s biggest and most fascinating creatures swam.
Some people mistakenly note that the North Pacific Gyre is like a giant floating island the size of Texas. If this were true, it would be relatively easy to scoop up the debris. As it is, a cleanup operation would have to extend almost a thousand miles across the Pacific Ocean’s surface to sweep up the debris, and even then such efforts would miss the plastic suspended between the surface and the ocean floor.
This plastic, trapped in thousands of pockets, or mini-gyres, is fragmented. Plastic doesn’t biodegrade per se, though the effect of sunlight causes it to “photodegrade”, breaking the bonds in plastic-based polymers until plastic is reduced to microscopic particles that are small enough to be ingested by plankton or krill, for example, at the bottom of the oceangoing food chain.
Consider this: a leatherback turtle, already on the endangered list, eats its favorite food, a jellyfish. Unfortunately, this jellyfish is really a plastic shopping bag, making the turtle ill and leading to an exponential rise in jellyfish populations, which eventually drive out more important fish.
The situation is improving, but only by baby steps, due to the vastness of earth’s oceans and the impossibility of patrolling them. Thus, even though in 1988 the Marine Plastic Pollution Research and Control Act (MARPOL) went into effect, the oceans still contain what the National Academy of Sciences has estimated as 14 billion pounds of junk dumped every year before that and collecting in one of the planet’s five major ocean gyres (North Atlantic, North Pacific, South Atlantic South Pacific, and the Indian Ocean).
The study of gyres and ocean currents isn’t just an opportunity for scientists to complain about plastic, however. Understanding these ocean currents and their larger climactic effect is integral to predicting climate change effects, even at a distance. In fact, as Simon Boxal of the National Oceanography Centre in the UK notes, the heat exchange that takes place between oceans and the atmosphere, in the shape of prevailing winds, redistributes some of the heat the oceans absorb in surprising and previously unexpected ways.
For example, El Niño was once considered a strictly Pacific event. Now scientists realize that incremental changes in temperature in one location can lead to spectacular, often devastating, changes at a place far distant, like Indonesia. For proof, consider the fact that an intense El Niño cycle causes serious drought in India on a frequency and severity scale that is too extravagant to be accidental.
Fortunately, Ebbesmeyer et al aren’t finished with their research, which may eventually lead to some quick fixes for climate change-driven events. If you live along an ocean coast and find a sadly faded yellow rubber duckie, contact Ebbesmeyer or co-author W. James Ingraham Jr. of the National Marine Fisheries Service, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Seattle.
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