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Slabs, Sneakers, Gyres and the Grotesque

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Book review: ‘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 hardcover edition, 2009: ISBN 978-0-06-155841-2, HarperCollins paperback edition, 2010: ISBN 978-0-06-155842-9

With a touch of whimsy, tales of the grotesque, and the barest hints of essential mathematics, Dr. Curtis Ebbesmeyer provides us with an overview of his life (thus far) in the science of physical oceanography. Even better, Dr. Ebbesmeyer presents an overview of his scientific investigations into the behavior of the world oceans in the context of his own life, a perspective that popular science writing on a topical basis rarely recognizes in its subjects.

Through family and friendships, discoveries and tragedies, professional progress and personal losses, Dr. Ebbesmeyer weaves for us his story of a life in the service of marine science and what he has found it to mean for himself, his profession, and the world at large.

By no means is this story a standard account of a career in academia, or even in professional laboratories and government service. Dr. Ebbesmeyer is foremost a scientist, but at the same time a son, a husband, a father and a friend. His parents are just as important to the progression of his career as his colleagues and collaborators in such labs and his friends, from formal schooling and professional research to those made on and near some of the "trashiest beaches in the world," in his own turn of phrase.

It was even before graduate school, under the tutelage of Dr. Clifford Barnes at the University of Washington, that a younger Curt Ebbesmeyer entered oceanography professionally. His mentor from those early years would accompany him through much of his professional life, if not in body and direct communication then also in spirit, in letters found and papers inherited, and in ashes scattered.

One of his closest friends, and both of his parents, pass through the story to similar fates. It was to be the same fate for many of his professional subjects, drifters on the world ocean as clues to a path through science and life.

Seeking to avoid the Vietnam draft following his graduation in 1965, young and just-married Curt had himself recruited first to Standard Oil of New York (later Mobil) for a trial stint as a roughneck working on wells in Bakersfield, California, and then back to graduate academics for a fresh start in Washington in 1966. Why oceanography? "It just looked like more fun," at least more so than nuclear engineering.

His initial, uninspiring graduate studies in theoretical oceanography soon gave way to a more close and invigorating mentorship in physical oceanography under Dr. Barnes, formerly a marine forecaster who tracked icebergs in and near shipping lanes across the Atlantic Ocean for the U.S. Navy during World War II. Mr. Ebbesmeyer’s dissertation work tracking the movement of submarine layers known as "slabs" in Dabob Bay, a sub-fjord of Puget Sound, would foreshadow much of his later work in the region for municipal and federal governments.

Mr. Ebbesmeyer rejoined the service of the Mobil Oil Corporation before completion of his Ph.D., which he eventually finished in 1973. In the meantime, he had established a lasting relationship with the oil industry that would prove initially profitable, later frustrating, and ultimately educational to the greatest extent for Dr. Ebbesmeyer.

Foreshadowing is a touchstone for Dr. Ebbesmeyer’s story provided here, with a topical history that loops back on itself more than once over time. The symbolism of that orbital path is not lost on the reader as the progression of Dr. Ebbesmeyer’s career is built, piece by piece, through the years with convergent topics and emergent phenomena.

Other touchstones include his friends and colleagues, Puget Sound and the larger northwestern coast of North America, and the inanimate drifters that have provided such vital clues to the patterns of the ocean surface. Dr. Ebbesmeyer recounts that it was at his mother’s suggestion that he first began to study drifters, initially a shipment of Nike sneakers that was lost overboard in the North Pacific Ocean in 1990 and soon made news by washing up on the shores of the Pacific Northwest. A life in pursuit of drifters and the science of the oceans was born.

A later spill of tub toys in 1992 lent the enduring picture of the rubber (actually plastic) duckies to studies that, in tandem with numerical modeling of drifters and wind currents at the surface of the ocean, elucidated the outlines of the Pacific Subarctic (Aleut) and North Pacific Subtropical (Turtle) gyres and their orbital periods.

Through studies in history and myth, drift cards and icebergs, publicity stunts and messages in bottles, dismembered bodies in Puget Sound and mummified victims of the Kuroshio Current, the reader is treated to the many disciplines of a consummate scientist who has come to recognize the larger context of his work.

Dr. Ebbesmeyer is as comfortable describing the early voyages of Columbus, redwood dugout canoes buried in the sands of Baja Mexico, and the tons of trash washed ashore on the southernmost beaches of Hawaii as he is in description of the oceanic gyres and their physical processes that made those discoveries possible.

At the same time, Dr. Ebbesmeyer recognizes the importance of awareness of marine pollution and his own advocacy for action against the very pollution that has provided him with so much data on the oceans’ clockwork mechanism of surface currents over the years. His history is learned, as demonstrated not least in his description and explanation regarding the seemingly fortuitous presence of an English-to-Japanese translator when Commodore Matthew Perry arrived in Tokyo Bay in 1854.

His look to the future, with altered Arctic currents and the persistence of now-well-known "garbage patches" around the world, is open-ended with both dark and optimistic insights. Above all else, Dr. Ebbesmeyer shows an open and inviting, distinctly interdisciplinary approach to his science of the oceans and the sources of knowledge, insight and discovery.

His has not been a typical career in academic or government science, with endless hours and months spent in the laboratory, poring over the minutiae of numerical simulations and journal publications, though these have obvious roles in his work. His consulting work, as frustrating as it became in later years, is a demonstration that grant proposals and academic tenure are not necessarily the most productive uses of a scientist’s time and skills.

And at the end of this story, Dr. Ebbesmeyer is not done yet. This life in science, this story of a scientist working at life, serves as an object lesson to us students and early career scientists contemplating the future of our field: there are many ways to go about building a successful and useful career, especially if we take notice of the colleagues, friends, currents, and flotsam that seem to drift along with us through our endless courses of learning.

Image: Ebbesmeyer, C.C., W.J. Ingraham Jr., T.C. Royer, and C.E. Grosch, 2007: "Tub Toys Orbit the Subarctic Gyre."  Eos, Trans. of the Amer. Geophys. Union, v. 88, no. 1, pp. 1, 4+

About the Author: Mr. Garcia earned a B.S. in Physics and Geosciences (1996) at Montclair State University and, after considering physical oceanography as a career, went on to M.S. degrees in Atmospheric Science (1999) and Civil Engineering – Hydrology (2003) at Colorado State University. He worked for four years in the Hydrological Sciences Branch at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center on several projects, served as an expert witness in trial testimony for the City of Colorado Springs, and was the Project Manager for the Arizona Hydrologic Information System (AHIS) effort of the Arizona Water Institute at the University of Arizona. Mr. Garcia is currently working as an independent Consulting Hydrologist, writing and blogging his way toward a Ph.D. program. His professional interests include problems in hydrology and water resource sciences, hydrometeorology, climate change, science in the popular media, government water policy, cold-region forests and mountains, and mapping for process understanding. He describes himself as "a rabid interdisciplinarian, always eager to learn in another topic or field related to how the water cycle works." He blogs at Hydro-Logic and tweets as @MGhydro.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Related at Scientific American:

Slabs, Sneakers, Gyres and the Grotesque By Matthew Garcia

Overboard: 28,000 toys and one man, lost at sea By Lindsey Hoshaw

A True Duck Hunt: interview with Donovan Hohn By David Manly

How does a floating plastic duckie end up where it does? By Eric Heupel

Rubber duckie, you’re the one–If only we could find you in the Arctic ice, says NASA By Jordan Lite

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