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Flotsametrics and the Floating World: How One Man's Obsession with Runaway Sneakers and Rubber Ducks Revolutionized Ocean Science

1 rating: 4.0
A book by Curtis Ebbesmeyer

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Tags: Books, Science, Beach, Ocean, Oceanography, Marine Biology
Author: Curtis Ebbesmeyer
Genre: Science
Publisher: Smithsonian
1 review about Flotsametrics and the Floating World: How...

Tracing the Stuff that Floats on the Ocean

  • Jul 16, 2009
For some reason, people tend to flock to the water. Especially when vacation calls. There is something magical about sitting on a beach, watching the waves. Or in having a cold beverage while gazing at the vastness of the ocean. This migration to the water seems to be part of human nature - a throw back to some ancient time. As we are in the midst of summer, a book concerning the oceans, and things that float on it, seems like a great idea. Part science, part autobiography, part cautionary tale, Flotsametrics and the Floating World: How One Man's Obsession with Runaway Sneakers and Rubber Ducks Revolutionized Ocean Science, by Curt Ebbesmeyer and Eric Scigliano, makes for the perfectly literal beach book.

Contents: Preface: A New World, Chasing Water; Oil and Icebergs; Messages in Bottles; Eureka, a Sneaker!; Coffins, Castaways, and Cadavers; The Admiral of the Floating World; Borne on a Black Current; The Great Conveyor; Ashes to Ashes, Life from the Sea; Junk Beach and Garbage Patch; The Synthetic Sea; The Music of the Gyres; Appendix A: Urban Legends of the Sea; Appendix B: A Million Drifting Messages; Appendix C: The Oceanic Gyres; Appendix D: Ocean Memory; Appendix E: Harmonics of the Gyres; Acknowledgements; Illustration Credits; Glossary; Further Reading; Index

Dr. Curt Ebbesmeyer wasn't always an oceanographer; his undergraduate degree is in Mechanical Engineering and after college, he landed a job with Mobil Oil. Soon, he decided he wanted a graduate degree and gravitated toward two possibilities; nuclear engineering and oceanography. His wife was interested in library sciences. Deciding on a college that was strong in all three took him to the University of Washington. It was there that Dr. Ebbesmeyer decided on oceanography. Flotsametrics is the story of Ebbesmeyer's rise to the top of oceanography by, of all things, studying and reporting on the flotsam and jetsam in the ocean. While he made a name for himself studying Puget Sound and the effects of wastewater discharged in it, he rose to prominence by researching and reporting on the beaching of thousands of toy ducks on the western coast of North America. Using a software program, OSCURS, developed by a friend, he was able to accurately predict where and when flotsam would wash up on the shore. With this knowledge, he was able to better study the gyres, continental-scale closed loops of water around which flotsam drifts, in the oceans of the world. He also coined the term "garbage patch," which are areas within a gyre where drifting objects collect. These areas create giant garbage dumps. one of which is called Junk Beach and is located on Hawaii's Big Island. Interestingly, Ebbesmeyer reveals the rhythmic nature of the world's oceans, adding an underlying beauty to the water. Finally, he weighs in with his thoughts on global warming and effect that it will have on the gyres as well as the pervasiveness of plastics in the oceans.

Like the tides, this book rises and falls. The science of the gyres, flotsam, garbage patches, and the cautionary words allow this book to sail. When Ebbesmeyer recounts his life, it has a dragging effect on the reader. I am sure that he has a wealth of interesting and lively anecdotes, however the ones that he chose for this book are overshadowed by the flotsam. While it makes for a few uninteresting pages, when he returns the seas, the pace really picks up. We are treated to maps, diagrams, and family pictures that add to the stories that he relates. Written in a manner that is accessible to everyone, his passion for the oceans is shared with the reader, who cannot close the book without having a better understanding of them. He is not heavy handed with global warming, but rather brings a different perspective; the plastics that pollute our oceans may be affecting the weather, and, without a doubt, the creatures that inhabit it and fly over it. While the chapter on the garbage patch was unnerving, he shows how these gathering places showed early voyagers where to make camp, provided Christopher Columbus with the knowledge that there is something out there, over the horizon, and brought iron and wood to remote areas of the world. If you live in Washington state or on or near an ocean, this is a very worthwhile book. For the rest of us, it no less interesting, as the oceans affect all of us. And if you have ever thrown a message in a bottle into the water, Ebbesmeyer will show you where it may have made landfall.

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July 16, 2009
@lyssachttr: the funny thing is that Curtis' father once brought him home a couple of rubber ducks, which his Dad named "Flotsam" and "Jetsam." How prophetic was that? :-)
July 16, 2009
Fascinating! You hear the phrase flotsam and jetsam used, but rarely literally - I've never thought much of their actual course and impact. Thanks for the review!
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