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For the past 15 years Curtis Ebbesmeyer has been tracking nearly 30,000 plastic bath toys that were released into the Pacific Ocean when a container was washed off a cargo ship.Some of the ducks, known as Friendly Floatees, are expected to reach Britain after a journey of nearly 17,000 miles, having crossed the Arctic Ocean frozen into pack ice, bobbed the length of Greenland and been carried down the eastern seaboard of the United States.Mr Ebbesmeyer, who is based in Seattle, said yesterday that those that had not been trapped in circulating currents in the North Pacific, crushed by icebergs or blown ashore in Japan are bobbing across the Atlantic on the Gulf Stream.
For Curt Ebbesmeyer, it all began in the early 1990s when his mother wondered aloud about the source of hundreds of Nike shoes that had washed up on beaches in the Pacific Northwest."To tell you the truth, I was more than a little curious myself," says Ebbesmeyer, a self-employed oceanographer who is fascinated by the ebbs and flows of the ocean and the strange and sometimes mysterious things those capricious tides deposit on the Earth's shores. "So I promised her I would look into it." Before long, Ebbesmeyer had successfully traced the errant, soggy footwear to a Korean ship that had lost 21 containers of freight, including the shoes, to stormy seas the year before. In the process of completing that investigation by using computer modeling, the scientist also discovered a little-studied world of trash, treasures and trifles that either fall off ships or are thrown overboard and end up floating- -sometimes for years--at the mercy of the tides before they wash up on shore.Some of that cargo is damaging to the ocean environment. Some is relatively harmless. All of it is interesting to the several hundred oceanographers and other people who regularly read the quarterly newsletter, Beachcombers' Alert, that Ebbesmeyer publishes out of his Seattle, Washington, home. "I get letters and e-mails everyday from people who ask me to identify mysterious items they've found," says Ebbesmeyer, who makes his living calculating for various government agencies where spilled oil and other pollutants will go if they enter the ocean, and charting ocean currents for private industry.The scientist estimates about 1,000 cargo containers wash overboard each year throughout the world. "Each container is huge," he says. "For instance, one can hold as many as 16,000 shoes. Some items sink, but many more float."Float like the thousands of plastic bathtub ducks and other toy animals that fell off a ship traveling from Hong Kong to the state of Washington in 1992. Ebbesmeyer and James Ingraham, a colleague who works for the National Marine Fisheries Service, calculate that the toys that have not already washed up on Pacific beaches will continue making their way over the North Pole and start appearing in the British Isles in a few years. "The computer program we use to calculate the migration predicts ocean surface currents based on wind speeds, atmospheric pressures and similar data that have been recorded over the last 30 years," say Ingraham.Ebbesmeyer and Ingraham used the computer program to track a spill of hockey gloves, 34,000 of them. They washed off a burning cargo ship in 1994 and started floating up on the Northwest's beaches 15 months later--exactly where the two men had predicted.Then there were the 4,756,940 LEGO toy pieces en route from the Netherlands to Connecticut in 1997. They never made it. A huge wave off Lands End, England, sent the container holding the toys skittering into the briny. Ebbesmeyer predicts that by the year 2020, currents will have distributed the toys throughout much of the Northern Hemisphere.
Suppose on my next trip to the coast i throw a message in a bottle out to sea, would it travel the severn seas? Would anyone bother to reply?Ok, the second question is not sciency, but if answering the first it would be nice to know your answer to the second.
The gyre has actually given birth to two large masses of ever-accumulating trash, known as the Western and Eastern Pacific Garbage Patches, sometimes collectively called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The Eastern Garbage Patch floats between Hawaii and California; scientists estimate its size as two times bigger than Texas [source: LA Times]. The Western Garbage Patch forms east of Japan and west of Hawaii. Each swirling mass of refuse is massive and collects trash from all over the world.