Monday, December 05, 2011

Bath toys in the biggest bath available

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, ecology, pollution, quests

About eight years ago Donovan Hohn became intrigued with the spill, in January 1992, of thousands of floating bath toys from a container ship into the northern Pacific Ocean. Initially thinking he could interview a few people and write an interesting article about it, he wound up quitting his teaching job and spent big chunks of the following four years traversing the planet in search of this latter-day "toy story" and of the toys themselves. His book details his travels: Moby-Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists, and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them.

The toys that were lost were equal numbers of four varieties, 7,200 each of yellow ducks, red beavers, green frogs and blue turtles. Somehow, the duckies became the iconic representatives of them all. As this image shows, floating toys of all kinds have been lost in shipping accidents and wash up on "trash beaches" that are particularly prone to collecting flotsam. These particular toys were produced by The First Years and were called Floatees. The small duck below center of this image is the most like a Floatee, but it is not clear that it is the genuine article.

Most of the Floatees have never been found. Yet this unintended experiment in current tracking has been helpful to oceanographers that study the currents that circle within ocean basins and also flow between them.

This map, from the Wikimedia Commons, shows the likely current directions as deduced by Curtis Ebbesmeyer from reports of Floatees that were collected or spotted. Now that nearly twenty years has passed since the toys were exposed to the elements, it is a race against time whether any more will be found.

As the author found from keeping a plastic Floatee in his freezer for a few months, they become brittle and prone to breaking into pieces. Those that made it into warmer climes were sun-bleached and then degraded, and have also been breaking up. In gyres such as the North Pacific "Garbage Patch", the plastic that has been collecting there is mostly not intact, but is in little bits. Most plastic lost at sea is in the form of pea-sized "nurbles" that are used to mold things. All these bits circle the seas and collect in the centers of gyres. Their density ranges from a few per cubit meter to a few hundred per cubic meter. This seemingly low density makes it hard to spot the Garbage Patch visually. But there are a lot of cubic meters out there, and the plastic mass is in the millions of tons.

Somewhere between 2,000 and 10,000 containers are lost at sea every year, and each is the size of a semi trailer, holding up to forty tons of cargo. That comes to as much as a quarter million tons or more of cargo lost yearly. Much of that is nurbles on the way to China or plastic toys on their way back to America.

To elucidate such facts, the author first visited certain Alaskan beaches where the Floatees were first reported. These trips comprise the second and third chapters of the book. He also visited a toy factory in southern China, then managed to obtain passage on a container ship as it sailed from Pusan, Korea to Seattle, Washington.

In his chapter on this cruise, he records a few helpful coordinates. These are marked on this image as red pins. The green line is the great circle route between the two harbors, and is a straight line on this projection. The image below shows a more conventional view of the great circle and of the ship's route, which is quite a bit to the south.

The great circle route is not precisely navigable, and for this reason, and to avoid the worst winter storms, once the ships leave the Japan Sea they stay south of the various archipelagoes along the route.

This doesn't keep them from losing cargo. Studies of the dynamics of these "Panamax" ships (meaning too large to pass through the Panama Canal) indicate that nonlinear effects of wave motions can cause them to suddenly tilt from side to side as much as 40°, which is almost certain to set loose some of the containers on board. On the author's cruise, he experienced only a rather mild storm, which was enough to make him hurl his lunch, but didn't cause any loss of cargo. This is the "normal" situation, or bath toys would be a lot more expensive!

It may seem that a lot of cargo is being lost, but it is a small percentage of total shipping. The insurance underwriters have so far been willing to carry on shouldering such losses (for suitable premiums, of course).

In his last chase, two chapters' worth, the author sailed on a research cruise through the Northwest Passage, on an icebreaker. He had quite a gaggle of scientists along for stimulating conversation. Few were interested in his quest for Floatees, however. While becoming one of a select few who have sailed the Northwest Passage and lived to tell the tale, he left posters in all the settlements where the ship docked, the kind of poster with little tags telling how to contact him. Unsurprisingly, he has not heard from anyone. By 2007, few Floatees were expected to be sufficiently intact to be recognized if one does come ashore. Along the way he helped one scientist launch more durable bottles containing notes with contact information, for a continuing study of polar currents. As long as you don't launch a glass bottle against the side of an iceberg and shatter it, it is likely to last many years and eventually wash up somewhere. Bottle launching is still more effective than computer modeling, primarily because we don't yet know enough about the oceans to accurately model their currents on any except the hugest of scales.

What resulted from the author's quest? He wound up with a fresh Floatee given him by Dr. Ebbesmeyer (who expects its eventual return), and a weathered one he found in Alaska. He attained a much greater appreciation of the sheer size of our planet. It is amazing that a little yellow duckie and a few thousand of its fellows can help us understand a little about what makes the oceans tick.

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