The great sneaker spill proved to be a boon to oceanography. Having precise
data for the spill and its contents allowed Ebbesmeyer, working with W.J.
(Jim) Ingraham, Jr. and the latter’s computer program, OSCURS (Ocean Surface
Current Simulator), to reconstruct the route of the shoes to the beaches
they washed up on in January 1991. The sneakers were good study objects
because they were buoyant, durable, and resistant to barnacles and other
fouling creatures. Beachcombers who retrieved them were often able to match
pairs, give them a good washing, and wear or sell them almost like new.
Ebbesmeyer had long employed "drift sticks," drogues, and other floaters to
track currents, mostly to predict paths of oil spills and sewage outflows,
at first for oil companies and later for his own firm. The sneaker event,
and the accuracy of the OSCURS predictions, led him to study other flotsam
to understand ocean currents better. Following cargo spills, he also
gathered information from beachcombers around the world. These contacts
developed into a network connected by Ebbesmeyer’s newsletter and website
As Ebbemeyer learned more about flotsam, he became ever more fascinated by
oceanic gyres--cyclical currents that flow around all parts of the seas--and
obsessed with understanding how they function as parts of a global system.
This growing interest in the "floating world" led him to scour history and
literature for records that might throw light on the subject. Poring through
writings as diverse as Norse sagas, the logs of Christopher Columbus, and
the stories of Edgar Allan Poe, he learned that long before scientific
oceanography, people had gleaned knowledge of currents from flotsam. Along
the way he studied records of messages in bottles, glass fishnet floats,
"sea beans" and other floating seeds, derelict ships, volcanic pumice,
surfboards, even floating coffins and cadavers, and especially plastic--lots of plastic.
He found that ancient mariners used flotsam to find sea routes and safe
harbors. Evangelists spread the Gospel by putting tracts in bottles and
"casting them upon the waters." Archaeologists learned about human history
and migrations, including how and when people from Asia may first have
reached the Americas.
Ebbesmeyer’s new book, Flotsametrics and the Floating World, is a
delightful read, filled with humor and charming stories of his life, work,
and friends, but there is a dark side, as well. The inescapable fact is that
humans have abused the oceans on a massive scale, and we’re only beginning
to recognize the consequences. Much of the rich soup that is seawater is now
permeated with plastics, right down to the molecular level, doing damage far
beyond unsightly beach litter. There are at least eight garbage patches in
the 11 major oceanic gyres, not just the famous one in the North Pacific.
"Collector" beaches, where winds and currents dump tons of debris, give
overwhelming evidence of our thoughtless profligacy. "Studies . . . show
plastic particles increasing tenfold every ten years in the 1970s and
80s--and tenfold in just three years in the '90s." Ebbesmeyer’s research on
oil spills and sewage flows was ignored again and again by government and
industry, till he despaired of science being able to affect policy.
He expects climate change to have major impacts on the gyres, especially as
Arctic ice melts, allowing the three north polar gyres to speed up
dramatically. He’s found that all the world’s gyres are interconnected in
harmonic relationships akin to musical intervals--a change in one current
affects all the others. Here, as in so much of what Ebbesmeyer has to tell
us, the beauties and dangers of ocean systems are bound together. The joy of
discovery is mitigated by new understanding of impending crises.
Flotsametrics and the Floating World: How One Man’s Obsession
with Runaway Sneakers and Rubber Ducks Revolutionized Ocean Science, by Curtis Ebbesmeyer and Eric Scigliano. Collins/Smithsonian Books, New
York, 2009. 304 pp., $26.99 (hard cover).