Sunday, November 16, 2008

Flotsam science: low-cost rubber duckies provide clue to ocean (and sub-glacial) currents

In an era of billion-dollar space telescopes, gene machines and city-size particle accelerators, some scientists just have to make do with tub toys. From Greenland's glaciers to the boundless Pacific main, researchers are tracking thousands of rubber ducks, frogs, beer bottles and wooden tops set adrift around the world to solve critical questions of oceanography, glaciology and global warming.

[They] call it flotsam science.
The field got its start back in 1992 when a Pacific storm dumped 28,200 plastic ducks, turtles and frogs from their shipping container into the ocean. Each of the toys had a unique manufacturing code that positively identified its origin . . . thus providing a wonderful means for discovering where ocean currents travel.

Some of the toys from that accident made it through the Bering Strait into the Arctic Ocean, over the North Pole via pack ice, and into the North Atlantic Ocean. According to Dr. Curtis Ebbesmeyer, editor of The Beachcombers Alert, the professional journal dedicated to this research.

Eleven years after its release,
one of the plastic ducks turned up in Maine, while one of the plastic frogs washed up in Scotland, more than 7,000 miles from where it started.
And the latest deliberate release of such flotsam? In August, Dr. Alberto Behar of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, placed
Dr. Behar tosses some rubber ducks into the Jakobshavn Isbrae. Each duck has been imprinted with an email address and, in three languages, offers a reward for its return.90 yellow rubber ducks into the melt water flowing down a chasm in the largest of Greenland's 200 glaciers -- the Jakobshavn Isbrae -- which has been thinning rapidly since 1997. Each duck was imprinted with an email address and, in three languages, the offer of a reward. If all goes well, Dr. Behar hopes that one day they will emerge 30 miles or so away at the glacier's edge in the open water of Disko Bay near Ilulissat, bobbing brightly amid the icebergs north of the Arctic Circle, each one a significant clue to just how warming temperatures may speed the glacier's slide to the sea.

Much more at the original article in the Wall Street Journal.
blog comments powered by Disqus