Flotsametrics and the Floating World

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  • Format: Hardcover
  • Copyright: 2009-03-04
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publications
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Pioneering oceanographer Ebbesmeyer uncovers the astonishing story of flotsam, unravels the mystery of marine currents, and changes the world's views of trash, the ocean, and the global environment. bw illustrations.

Table of Contents

Preface: A New Worldp. xiii
Chasing Waterp. 1
The shoe drops and a quest begins.
Growing up near the sea but not on it.
Chocolate and ducklings, Flotsam and Jetsam.
An educational detour.
Dance class and lifelong love.
Escaping the draft and working for Big Oil.
Hearing the oceanographic call.
A boost from John D. Rockefeller.
A mentor with a holistic approach to the sea.
An aquatic snark hunt.
Deadheads and Trident subs.
Eulerian and Lagrangian viewpoints.
Water bodies as granular and dynamic.
Dabob Bay as oceanic microcosm.
Oil and Icebergsp. 18
Jim Ingraham creates the Ocean Surface Current Simulator.
The UW gang fans out.
Mobil Oil's first oceanographer.
Conspiring to make Big Oil prepare for big waves.
Cliff Barnes's war with icebergs and U-boats.
Riders on the icy sea.
Life on ice islands.
North Sea perils.
Goodbye, Dallas; hello, Seattle.
Knocking on doors.
Sewage grease balls and a devil's staircase.
Akira Okubo, master of swarm mathematics.
Daredevil drift reading on the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
Chasing snarks with the Russians.
An ocean full of eddies.
Messages in Bottlesp. 45
My father's many illnesses.
Our family is reunited in Seattle.
Oil bust and near bankruptcy.
Chasing the Gulf Stream's frontal eddies.
The frustrations of environmental consulting.
Low-tech drift sticks on Port Ludlow.
The Vikings release the first ocean drifters and find new harbors.
Yasuyori's wave-borne verse.
The science of determinate drifters and the mystique of message bottles.
Edgar Allan Poe, oceanographic seer.
Guinness rules the waves.
The czar's bottle.
Gospel bombs and bottled salvation.
I dedicate myself to drifters.
Eureka, a Sneaker!p. 70
The Great Sneaker Spill.
Shippers stonewall, but Nike shares its secrets.
The joy of beachcombing.
OSCURS predicts the sneakers' path.
Another spill: beavers, frogs, turtles, and ducks.
Ducky mania.
OSCURS aces another blind test.
The tub toys round the Aleut Gyre.
Pacific Pathways comes to Sitka.
Oceanic wheels within wheels.
An epic freedom drifter.
Hockey gloves outrace sneakers.
Wind and waves sort left from right.
Why nature is two-sided.
Coffins, Castaways, and Cadaversp. 94
Four right feet.
The float-away corpse.
Ignoring the oil-spill omens.
Dad's passing and the Beachcombers' Alert.
Isis, Osiris, Moses, and Genghis.
Freedom floaters and the Loop Current.
Nelson Eddy strikes. Freedom's price.
Floaters and sinkers.
Follow the shark.
The mystery of Barnacle Bill.
The dead don't stay down.
I lose my sea legs.
The Admiral of the Floating Worldp. 118
Far-flung flotsam in the Mediterranean catch basin.
Awakening to Columbus.
How sea beans conquered the sea.
The first flotsamologist.
The Azores dumping ground.
Messengers from "Cathay."
Invasion of the Finnmen.
Reading the waters, not the maps.
Phantom islands.
Cross Creek's floating archipelago.
Columbus's message in a barrel.
Borne on a Black Currentp. 138
Ancient volcanic emigrants.
The mighty Kuroshio sweeps them away.
Asian infusions in America.
Castaways from the hermit shogunate.
Ranald MacDonald's bold mission to Japan.
Wrecked junks at Malarrimo.
The American Coastal Pathway.
The Great Conveyorp. 152
Ban beans, brick beads, and buoyant urns.
One mystery leads to another.
The forgotten gyres, rediscovered and renamed.
Amos Wood follows the fishing floats.
Buzzy's board rounds the gyre.
Tracking water by standing still.
Orbital periods.
Handoffs between gyres.
Wheels within watery wheels.
The global conveyor belt.
Ashes to Ashes, Life from the Seap. 171
Akira and Keiko, apart but inseparable.
A young planet covered in floating rock.
Pumice as primordial incubator.
Akira and I broach our new theory of life's beginnings.
Akira's end.
A farewell feast.
We flush Keiko out to sea.
My parents join Akira and Keiko in the Turtle Gyre.
Junk Beach and Garbage Patchp. 186
Growing official and corporate indifference to marine environmental threats.
Deaf ears and cold shoulders.
Frustration and early retirement.
How a garbage patch forms: Hadley cells and reverse hurricanes.
Huxley and Mann on Rubber Beach.
St. Paul's suffering fur seals.
Collector beaches.
Hawaiian convergence.
How the islanders used the currents.
We reach Junk Beach.
Cleanups, pileups, and an unending washup.
Charlie Moore's war on marine dumping.
Turtle beach and plastic sea.
The Synthetic Seap. 208
Plastic, born in mimicry.
Pool balls and piano keys: seeking an ivory substitute.
Plastic-packed albatrosses.
Molecular mimicry.
Endocrine disruptors and feminization.
Nurdles sponge up greasy pollutants.
Petroleum, plastic, lead, and mercury: which is worse?
Rat poison canisters at the Fun Fair.
The Music of the Gyresp. 222
The gyre orbits add up.
Oceanic octaves, a global harmonic series.
Melting the Arctic and speeding the gyres.
Farewell, fundamental tone.
Finding hope.
Urban Legends of the Seap. 229
The cold truth about Theophrastus's bottles, Queen Elizabeth's uncorker, the Octavius's drift, the Sydney's globe-circling lifebelt, Daisy Alexander's $6 million bottle, and Clyde Pangborn's missing wheel.
A Million Drifting Messagesp. 233
The Oceanic Gyresp. 235
Ocean Memoryp. 236
Harmonics of the Gyresp. 238
Gyres and other orbiting currents classified by tone-length of orbital period-from longest to shortest.
Acknowledgmentsp. 240
Ilustration Creditsp. 242
Glossaryp. 243
Further Readingp. 247
Indexp. 267
Table of Contents provided by Ingram. All Rights Reserved.


Flotsametrics and the Floating World
How One Man’s Obsession with Runaway Sneakers and Rubber Ducks Revolutionized Ocean Science

Chapter One

Chasing Water

I was a penniless, uneducated man. A piece of driftwood.
—Abraham Lincoln

In the wee hours of May 27, 1990, midway between Seoul and Seattle, the freighter Hansa Carrier met a sudden storm and, as freighters often do, lost some of the cargo lashed high atop her deck. Twenty-one steel containers, each forty feet long, tore loose and plunged into the North Pacific. Five of those containers held high-priced Nike sports shoes bound for the basketball courts and city streets of America. One sank to the sea floor. Four broke open, spilling 61,820 shoes into the sea—and into the vast stream of flotsam, containing everything from sex toys to computer monitors, that is released each year by up to ten thousand overturned shipping containers.

One year later, in early June 1991, I stopped by my parents' house in Seattle, as I did every week or so, for lunch and the latest news. My mother, who loved serving as my personal clipping service, had extracted a wire story from the local paper. It reported a strange phenomenon: Hundreds of Nike sneakers, brand-new save for some seaweed and barnacles, were washing up along the Pacific coasts of British Columbia, Washington, and, especially, Oregon, Nike's home state. A lively market had developed; beach dwellers held swap meets to assemble matching pairs of the remarkably wearable shoes, laundered and bleached to remove the sea's traces. The details as to how they'd gotten there were sketchy, verging on nonexistent, and that piqued my mother's curiosity. "Isn't this the sort of thing you study?" she asked, assuming as ever that her son the oceanographer knew everything about the sea. "I'll look into it," I said.

I started looking and never stopped. Seventeen years and many thousands of shoes, bath toys, hockey gloves, human corpses, ancient treasures, and other floating objects later, I'm still looking.

Objects like these have been falling into the sea and washing up on the shores since the dawn of navigation—for billions of years, if you count driftwood, volcanic pumice, and all the other natural materials that float upon the waves. Ordinarily, flotsam is soon lost to human memory—though not, as we shall see, to the ocean's memory. The Great Sneaker Spill would have proved one more curiosity in the annals of beachcombing if my mother hadn't asked her question, and if I hadn't been ready to see the research doors that it opened.

It's only now that I can see how my entire life—from my first childhood encounters with the sea to decades of mainstream research into currents, tides, drifting pollutants, and the curious mobile water bodies called slabs—had prepared me for the puzzle posed by this spill. These thousands of lost sneakers composed a giant scientific experiment on a silver platter, fully if unwittingly funded by Nike—a serendipitous window into the ocean's deepest secrets. They were also the grain around which a worldwide network of beachcombing field volunteers has formed, zealously scouting out and recording telltale washups from Norway to New Zealand.

These high-seas drifters offer a new way of looking at the seas, their movements, and, as we shall see, their music. 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—the floating world.

I did not grow up beside the sea; we lived across the San Rafael Mountains in the hot and dusty San Fernando Valley. My mother and father were raised in Chicago and never saw the ocean until the war brought them to California in 1941. But we were close enough to the water to pine for it—and to escape to the beach whenever we had a free day. Perhaps being so near and yet cut off from the sea made me crave it all the more.

As far back as I can remember, I was fascinated with water and its movements. As soon as I could get my hands on a garden hose, I stuck it in the ground and watched the soil bubble up and wash away around it, like sand on a beach. I would make a pond out of my red Radio Flyer wagon, filling it with water and setting toys and beer bottles floating across it. In elementary school I wrote a story about Paul Bunyan but recast him as a giant of the ocean rather than the woods, striding from sea to sea in his seven-league boots.

My father was a chocolate salesman. Perhaps this followed from his mother's career back in Chicago—making bootleg whiskey, a trade she learned growing up on an Iowa farm and then used to see her children through the Depression after her husband died as the result of an industrial accident. Dad's stock-in-trade was a fine German chocolate brand named Merckens. Twice a month he drove up the coast from Los Angeles to San Francisco teaching small candy shops along the way how to dip conventional American chocolates in melted Merckens. He was a natural at such performances—tall and mirthful, with hair turned a distinguished premature white by all the ether he'd been administered as a teenager during operations on a badly broken ankle. He was a born starter-upper, always organizing projects when he got home—a go-kart for us, new trees for the yard, a block wall around our entire half-acre lot.

Dad's sales trips usually lasted a week, and after each he brought home presents for my brother Scott and me. One Easter, when I was about ten years old, he brought two yellow ducklings. With characteristic whimsy, he named them Flotsam and Jetsam, names that would stay with me for the rest of my life. No one could have guessed how prophetic that gift would prove to be.

Even Dad's chocolate trade seems in retrospect to have forecast the path I would take. The Western world's first chocolate salesman was Christopher Columbus, who brought Europe its first cacao beans when he returned from America. And it was flotsam that led Columbus to America in the first place.

Flotsametrics and the Floating World
How One Man’s Obsession with Runaway Sneakers and Rubber Ducks Revolutionized Ocean Science
. Copyright © by Curtis Ebbesmeyer . Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Excerpted from Flotsametrics and the Floating World: How One Man's Obsession with Runaway Sneakers and Rubber Ducks Revolutionized Ocean Science by Curtis Ebbesmeyer, Eric Scigliano, Curtis C. Ebbesmeyer
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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