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Friday, April 16, 2010

RUBBER DUCKIES

I find that as I rush toward old age my view of the oceans has been defined by two cartoon shows from my youth. One was the first episode of ”Johnny Quest” in which he and Bandit battled ”The Mystery of the Lizard Men” in the Sargasso Sea: and the other was the “Rocky and Bullwinkle Show” when the flying squirrel announced he had an important message and the Moose asked if it could be “Fan mail from some flounder?” Call it “The Oceanography of Hanna Barbera”.
The Sargasso Sea was first reported by the Carthaginian navigator Himilco, and first crossed by Christopher Columbus on his way home from "discovering" America. The Sargasso lies in the center of the North Atlantic gyre, trapped between the north and eastern flow of the Gulf Stream, the south bound Canary Islands Current and the westbound Atlantic Tropical Current, which brings hurricanes to North America.
Legend (and Johnny Quest) has it that these “Calms of Cancer” are chocked with sea weed and littered with trapped ships. Of course they are not. The Sargasso sits beneath a weather high pressure zone, where wind driven currents are slow and floating patches of sea weed are common enough to provide shelter for adolescent fish, eels and sea turtles. But it is hardly so crowded with Sargassum weeds as to foul propellers and trap ships. But why spoil a legend (or a cartoon show) with reality?
The Sargasso Sea has a counterpart in the infamous “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”. Charles Moore first sailed through this man-made sea in 1988. “As I gazed from the deck…I was confronted, as far as the eye could see, with the sight of plastic….In the week it took to cross the subtropical high, no matter what time of day I looked, plastic debris was floating everywhere: bottles, bottle caps, wrappers, fragments.” It almost sounds as of the Lizard Men could be walking about by stepping on all the empty gallon milk jugs. Actually things in the north Pacific aren’t that bad. In a way they are worse.
What we commonly call plastics are a product of what I call the “Oil Age”, roughly from 1900 to approximately 2035 or so, when petroleum was (is) still common enough to be cheap enough to be used as 3F - i.e. used as fuel, fertilizer and fat (as in extravagant).
It takes 685 gallons of oil (line at the top of the chart) to make one ton of plastic, which is what makes plastic a “fat”. And that is not counting the oil you have to burn to heat the crude to 750 degrees Fahrenheit in the cracking tower (on the left side of the chart), which is when the petroleum molecules line up in endless chains called “polymers”, which is another name for plastics.
Because polymer chains endlessly repeat themselves they never completely break down, they just get shorter. And even if the sun finally degrades the plastic in a six-pack ring so that a sea gull can no longer get her head caught in it, the polymer chain merely becomes small enough to be swallowed by jelly fish or plankton, which can then be eaten by sea turtles, which can then be eaten by sea bass, which can then be eaten by sea gulls and humans.
About the same time that Captain Moore first laid eyes on the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” it first occurred to large numbers of people to start wondering where the water went when they flushed their toilets. If you live in Asia, or the West Coast of North America, the answer is, eventually, The North Pacific Ocean. And it turns out that is a problem.
On January 10, 1992 a container ship crossing the Pacific out of Hong Kong bound for Tacoma, Washington, ran into heavy weather as it neared where the 45th parrallel touches the International Date Line. A dozen containers stacked on deck washed overboard. About 10,000 such containers fall off cargo ships each year. And in this case, one those 44 foot long aluminum boxes cracked open, releasing 29,000 “rubber duckies” and rubber beavers, turtles and frogs into the cold Pacific waters. At that point the ocean currents took over. In October of 1992 the duckies, frogs and beavers began washing up on beaches near Sitka, Alaska. Between November ’92 and August of 1993 they washed ashore between Cordova and Coronation Island in the Gulf of Alaska.
From here Dr. Curtis Ebbesmeyer has calculated that a few of the “floating Friendlies” would be carried northward by the Berring Current into the Artic Ocean, where they might spend as long as four or five years trapped in the sea ice. But eventually, Dr. Ebbesmeyer figured, a few would pass through the Davis Straights and reach the North Atlantic Ocean.
And right on time, in July of 2007,  Ms. Penny Harris, a retired schoolteacher, found one of the duckies washed up at the high tide line of a beach in North Devon, Wales, thus proving that no matter where or when you flush your waste, it all ends up in the same place. Eventually that includes even the very bottom of the ocean: which in the Pacific is the Challenger Deep, a section of the Marianas Trench 35,827 feet below the waves. Mount Everest, dropped into the trench, would still be 8,000 below the surface. The pressure here is a thousand times greater than that at sea level.
Humans have visited the Challenger Deep just once, on January 23, 1960, when US Navy Lieutenant Don Walsh and a Swiss citizen, Jacques Piccard, spent 20 minutes on the bottom, staring out at the featureless ooze. They did not find a "Rubber Duckie" but a flat flounder did wiggle past their porthole.
It has since been argued that it wasn’t a flounder but a sea cucumber, but I refuse to accept that arguement. You can’t get fan mail from a sea cucumber – that would just be silly.
This is all just something to think about next time you flush. And we all have to flush.  "Rubber Duckie, you’re the one, You make bath time lots of fun, Rubber Duckie, I’m awfully fond of you; Woo, Woo be doo”. (lyrics by Jeff Moss)
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