Curt Ebbesmeyer Profile


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Curt Ebbesmeyer says that when investigating the paths of ocean currents, he uses every tool available. He studies satellite images and data from buoys. He tosses objects into the water to see where they go.

Then in May of 1990, his toolbox grew a lot bigger. A storm south of the Alaskan peninsula knocked 21 containers off a ship delivering goods from Korea to the United States. Four containers burst open, releasing 61,000 brand new Nike sneakers and boots to the mercy of the winds and surface currents. The following Thanksgiving, hundreds of shoes appeared on beaches in northern Washington. By spring, beachcombers had collected shoes from Oregon to the Queen Charlotte Islands off the Canadian coast. The press picked up the story, and Curt was soon on the case. Through some detective work he learned the source of the shoes and the number that had likely been set adrift. He also learned that each shoe had a distinct serial number making it the largest instantaneous release of numbered objects at one time.

Oceanographer Curt Ebbesmeyer displays well traveled tub toys
Oceanographer Curt Ebbesmeyer displays well traveled tub toys.

In January 1992, his toolbox grew even larger. A storm washed several containers from a ship bound from Hong Kong to Tacoma, Washington. One container carried 29,000 bathtub toys. Ten months later, plastic ducks, turtles, frogs, and beavers began washing up near Sitka, Alaska. A new experiment had begun and Curt’s career as a pioneer in the study of floating debris was in full swing.

Today, Curt presides over a network of thousands of beachcombers. These volunteers and hobbyists walk the beaches of the world, snatching up shoes, hockey equipment, surveyor stakes, bowling balls, Lego’s, tobacco jars, utility poles, fishing gear, survival suits (with and without body parts), and the occasional message in a bottle, and report their findings to Curt. Curt studies the information, thinks about what it all means, and compiles these stories into a newsletter, Beachcombers Alert, which he mails to his subscribers four times a year. If a new cargo spill occurs, Curt alerts his network about what to look for.

Curt has spent his entire 40-year career studying ocean currents. From 1965 to 1974, he worked for Mobil Oil Corp. There he tracked icebergs over the Grand Banks where Mobil had placed its drilling rigs. If an iceberg got too close to a rig, he helped figure out how to tow it away. (It takes a lasso and three large ships.) Curt then freelanced for Evans-Hamilton, an oceanographic consulting firm based in Seattle, until he retired in 2003. During that time, he studied eddies and ocean turbulence deep below the surface, helped track the 1989 Exxon Valdes oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska, and studied how the currents in Puget Sound in Washington affected sewage outflows, oil spills, and migrating salmon.

Now retired, Curt devotes his attention to the random debris that enters the sea. Floating debris has become a permanent feature of the world’s oceans. This junk takes a terrible environmental toll, especially on marine birds and mammals. For Curt, however, each item also has the potential to tell a fascinating story as well as contribute valuable information on ocean currents. The remarkable staying power of many of these objects makes them ideal scientific instruments. Objects may drift about for decades and remain intact. By contrast, many of the sophisticated (and expensive) buoys that oceanographers deploy may only provide data for about five years. The sheer numbers of shoes and bath toys also ensures that many will be recovered, providing Curt with plenty of data for his analysis.

To trace the paths of these drifters, Curt turns to his long-time collaborator Jim Ingraham of the Alaska Fisheries Science Center. Jim has spent many years developing the Ocean Surface Currents Simulator (OSCURS), which traces the surface currents of the North Pacific. These models are based on current and meteorological data gathered daily from naval ships scattered throughout the North Pacific. He has mostly used OSCURS to study the effects of currents on fish eggs, larvae, and plankton and on the behavior of migrating salmon and marine mammals. But he has also harnessed it to map the journeys of ocean debris. Curt figures out where and when the journeys begin and end, and OSCURS fills in what happens in between.

Knowing the paths of the currents, though, is not enough. Other factors such as shape, size, and buoyancy may also determine an object’s course. Curt has observed with fascination that different beaches specialize in different types of debris. One beach may collect light bulbs while another collects tennis balls. Even right and left sneakers end up in different places. Before running OSCURS, Curt and Jim test the effects of wind on each type of object. Wind can speed up or slow down an object or propel it in a different direction. Because the OSCURS models incorporate wind data, Jim can adjust them to account for the effect of wind.

This collaboration has proven invaluable to Jim as well. To validate a model, one needs to compare the model’s projections to data from the real world. Discrepancies highlight where the model needs to be improved. The debris that Curt has been tracking has provided such a test, and so far the results have been good.

The tracking of the 1992 plastic bathtub toy spill has proven especially valuable in studying the speed and trajectory of surface currents in the North Pacific. After the spill, the toys got caught up in the Subpolar Gyre, which circles counterclockwise from Sitka past the Aleutian Islands to the Kamchatka Peninsula, then back across the Pacific to Washington and Sitka, a distance of 6,800 nautical miles. Initially OSCURS predicted that the toys would become trapped inside the gyre much like debris gets trapped within the North Pacific subtropical gyre to the south where they form an enormous floating garbage patch. But instead, bath toys continued circling the gyre. In 1994, 1998, 2001, and 2003, bath toys reappeared on Sitka beaches, meaning some had circled the gyre four times. Others may still be circling the gyre with the next landing in Sitka projected for 2007. Other toys escaped the gyre. Some entered the subtropical gyre to the south. A turtle was recovered on Kure Island and a beaver and frog on Lanai Island. OSCURS predicted that other toys would head north through the Bering Straight, then get carried by the pack ice across the North Pole into the North Atlantic. Sure enough, in 2003, a duck showed up in Maine and a frog in Scotland.

Additional Ebbesmeyer videos