Wednesday, July 7, 2010

It's amazing what a duck can teach you

Mapping ocean currents with rubber toys

From Robert Fulford, National Post

In 1992, thousands of rubber duckies and other bathtub toys fell from a ship during a storm in the Pacific and began to circle the Earth on a voyage that lasted more than 16 years.
Their arrival on beaches from Australia to England delivered to oceanographers fresh data about currents and gave the world yet another metaphor for global interconnection.
That metaphor went to work most recently in Water (MIT Press), a thick paperback that's part of Alphabet City, a series of anthologies edited in Toronto by John Knechtel.

Route taken by the Friendly Floatees initially lost in the Pacific Ocean in 1992.

Timothy Stock, a philosophy professor in Britain, uses that famous shipment in an essay, The Waters of Metaphysics.
After quoting Plato ( "all things are the offspring of flow and motion"), he writes about the ancient Greek idea that the ocean was the birthplace of the gods and the modern conviction that all elements eventually move through the ocean, thereby through the food chain.
And, as he says, evolution reminds us that it was in the oceans that the first signs of life appeared.

The message of Water seems especially striking in this tragic summer, shadowed by the BP explosion and vast pollution in the Gulf of Mexico.
Knechtel and his contributors set out to explore the hazards afflicting the oceans and also bring their readers alive to the poetry inherent in water.
Humans have always regarded water with awe but not necessarily respect.
We know that without the oceans we are lost but we also seem to believe that we can mistreat them without risk.
Perhaps the summer of 2010 will change the place we give to water in our collective imagination.

Water, in the eccentric tradition of Alphabet City, contains a visual study of the 1997 Manitoba flood, interpretations of Niagara Falls, an examination of the branding of bottled waters, some Arnaud Maggs pictures of mould formations staining the pages of a water-damaged ledger from the days of Yukon gold prospecting and a short story about a woman in her bath living through a depression while brooding about Pierre Bonnard's gorgeous bath paintings of his wife and mistress.
Knechtel also includes the score of a piece of music written by Melissa Grey as accompaniment to the shower scene in Hitchcock's Psycho, complete with stills from the film and cues connecting music to the pictures (SHOWER CURTAIN OPEN ... KNIFE).

Ravine City, by Chris Hardwicke, is an eloquent piece about a way to rebuild Toronto by opening up the city's many buried streams and rivers.
Hardwicke would restore the city's natural water cycle and line the ravines with terraced housing and gardens working in symbiosis with the city's watersheds.

Water, just by mentioning the case of the rubber duckies, sent me scurrying off in search of the definitive work on that subject and its implications, Flotsametrics and the Floating World: How One Man's Obsession with Runaway Sneakers and Rubber Ducks Revolutionized Ocean Science (Smithsonian Books: Harper Collins), by Curtis Ebbesmeyer and Eric Scigliano, published last year.

When I first heard the outlines of this story the phrase "urban myth" danced through my head. It seemed too good to be true. Ebbesmeyer persuaded me otherwise.

It began Jan. 10, 1992, when a container ship, en route from Hong Kong to Tacoma, Wash., ran into a hurricane near the international dateline.
The waves were so powerful that they broke some of the steel cables holding the huge containers, releasing 12 of them over the side.
One that was lost held 28,800 Friendly Floatee bathtub toys, made in China for The First Years Inc. of Avon, Mass.
They were red beavers, green frogs, blue turtles and, of course, yellow ducks.

We might expect that elaborate wrapping around the toys would have dragged them straight to the bottom.
But they managed to escape five levels of packing, from the heavy steel containers (violent waves opened the door latches) to the plastic and paper boxes (water pulped the cardboard) before finally floating free.

It took 10 months for the first 10 Floatees to reach shore near Sitka, Alaska, having been swept along by the Subpolar Gyre, the ocean current in the Bering Sea.
By then they had covered about 3,200 km and two oceanographers in Seattle, Ebbesmeyer and James Ingraham, were tracking their progress.
(Ebbesmeyer and Ingraham were already studying 61,000 Nike running shoes that had fallen in the ocean two years earlier. -see 'Hansa Carrier' below-)

A few months later another 20 toys reached Alaska.
By August 1993, 400 more had been found along the shores of the Gulf of Alaska. Ingraham logged them in his OSCURS (Ocean Surface Currents Simulation), a program that calculates the course of wind and currents.
Other toys, after following a circuitous route to Washington state, began arriving there in 1996.

The oceanographers predicted that some toys would drift north, get locked in Arctic ice, then eventually be released.
In a few years they could move across the Pole to the Atlantic. Then where would they go? Eventually they arrived in Maine, Iceland, Newfoundland, the U.K. and Germany.

The last of the survivors continued to float, Ebbesmeyer says, "bleached and battered but still recognizable after 16 years." Well, the manufacturer said they were designed to survive 52 dishwasher cycles.

Ebbesmeyer approaches this narrative with a cheerful buoyancy: "These high-seas drifters offer a new way of looking at the seas. Call it 'flotsametrics.'
It's led me to a world of beauty, order and peril I could not have imagined even after decades as a working oceanographer."
He loves his status as flotsam headquarters for data sent back by the world's 1,000 or so dedicated beachcombers.

It's a joyful story of discoveries he tells in his book.
But he brings the reader back to Earth, and starts us thinking again about BP, when he describes the seabed slowly filling with bits of plastic that poison the fish and eventually the humans who eat them.
Thousands of containers fall into the sea every year, creating an oceanic junkyard.

And the junk never disappears.
These days beachcombers keep coming across flotsam antiques, like a plastic ball decorated with 40-year-old cartoon characters or Japanese glass buoys for fishing nets that haven't been used in half a century.
These relics are fascinating bits of the past, but when it comes to the fate of the oceans, perhaps beachcombers have stumbled upon the melancholy truth.

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