The Science Behind Beachcombing

April 29, 2009 at 2:46 pm | Posted in News | 3 Comments

rubber-duckieBeachcombing feels romantic and random. As we wrote in The Scavengers’ Manifesto, “Beaches are where wild nature and fun-seeking humanity often meet. The result is a glorious, ever-changing array of treasures both natural and human-made, delivered in the most dramatic setting possible. Finding nice things along a shore — whether it’s driftwood or seashells or coins — feels magical, like having been tossed a prize from an undersea kingdom.” But actual science applies to beachcombing, as it does to nearly everything. In his new book Flotsametrics: How One Man’s Obsession with Runaway Sneakers and Rubber Ducks Revolutionized Ocean Science, oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer and maritime writer Eric Scigliano detail Ebbesmeyer’s research on currents and “gyres,” the circular patterns that objects follow in water as they travel as many as several thousand miles. Ebbesmeyer hosts “Flotsam Hour,” a program on Puget Sound’s public-radio station, KUOW-FM.

“It all began with sneakers,” we read in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “A cargo ship bound from South Korea to Los Angeles hit a storm in May 1990, losing 78,932 Nike shoes, which proved to be excellent ocean-going travelers. Using a program called the Ocean Surface Current Simulator, the author and colleague Jim Ingraham were able to predict where and when the sneakers would wash up with remarkable accuracy. They repeated the trick with 28,800 bathtub toys lost in a storm in the North Pacific in 1992.”

Ebbesmeyer has also tracked eight of the world’s notorious “garbage islands,” aka oceanic trash heaps, “which together cover an area more than twice the size of the United States. He reports on a spot in Hawaii dubbed ‘Junk Beach,’ where there is so much plastic that the ‘sand’ is now made of it.” Eeew! Talk about a crime against nature.

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