Thirty years ago, thousands of bathtub toys crashed into the sea. Truly a tragic contribution to the plastic pollution of the oceans. But there was a good side to this misfortune.
The accident happened on January 10, 1992 in the Pacific. The container ship bound for the United States from Hong Kong was caught in a severe storm. Several containers of cargo went overboard. At least one of them opened and poured its cargo into the sea: plastic bathtub animals. Tweet ducks, otters, turtles and frogs, 29,000.
Reconstructed travel routes
At this point the story ends, but the most interesting thing begins here: the bathing animals were pumped by the wind and currents, washed up on the beach, collected by walkers on the beach, and finally became the subject of scientific research. . This is because the places where bathing animals are found can be used to reconstruct their travel routes and times – thus gaining insight into the ocean’s flowing conditions.
This information was mainly collected by American marine researcher Curtis Epsmeyer. A few years ago he used a similar shipwreck to collect scientific data. More than 60,000 Nike sneakers went aboard and washed up on the west coast of the United States and Canada in the following months.
Network of beachcombers
He founded the Coastal Traveler Network. After the rubber duck accident, he received new reports from beach property collectors about the plastic animals found. Their origin can be proven by the manufacturer’s engraving.
Johanna Behr, a marine researcher at the University of Hamburg, says: “Baths brought real treasure data to accidental research.”
Basically, the idea of studying ocean currents with the help of floating measuring devices is not new, on the contrary. “The so-called drifters are one of the oldest methods of marine research,” says Jர்க்rg-Olaf Wolf, a marine researcher at the University of Oldenburg. As early as 1864, researcher George von Newmeer had a message from Cape Horn in a bottle thrown from the German Marine Observatory at Hamburg. In it, the inventor is requested to inform the researcher again of the place and time. This bottle was later discovered in Australia. “It was 150 years ago and contributed to a better understanding of large-scale ocean currents.”
Today researchers use GPS-equipped high-precision measuring devices that can record data such as temperature, water salinity or barometric pressure and send it to satellites. “There are also free-floating devices that sink back and forth to a depth of one and two kilometers from the surface and collect data in the process,” says Wolf.
In comparison, drifters such as bathing animals provided only the most accurate data. “But it’s better than anything, especially since the data was created for free.” Digital measuring devices are expensive and cannot be used anywhere in large numbers.
Some rounds turned
Where did the rubber animals go? Analysis of the found data, they initially circled in the opposite direction of the current flow in the North Pacific Circle – from Sitka on the Alaskan coast, across the Aladdin Islands, across the Kamchatka Peninsula, and finally across the Pacific across the west coast of the United States to Alaska. .
In 1994, 1998, 2001 and 2003 Epsmeyer received reports of discoveries from SIDCA, claiming that the animals had made a few rounds in a circle. Others escaped the vortex and flew to Hawaii and Australia.
“Perhaps one of the most exciting discoveries was that the bathing animals were transported from the Pacific to the North Atlantic,” says Behr. “Related models have predicted this, but animals have shown that this may actually be the case.” In fact, the specimens were found off the west coast of the United States, Scotland and the United Kingdom in the early 2000s.
Via the Bering Strait
They moved across the northern Bering Strait to Greenland in the North Atlantic in the Arctic Ocean – whether frozen in ice or sitting on top of ice. “This path was an interesting confirmation that there is a surface current covering such a distance,” says Wolf.
Since 2016, a marine researcher from the University of Oldenburg has been investigating an interim committee with the help of drifters on how garbage is distributed in the North Sea. The researchers threw a total of 65,000 small wooden slides into the North Sea. These were numbered and requested to report items found with location and time details.
One of the surprising results of the project: Ocean conditions in the North Sea may change upside down under certain conditions. “Suddenly we got a report from the UK. It made it clear that the wooden slides were not directed in the opposite direction as usual, but in a clockwise direction,” says Wolf. “You never knew that before.”
“Terribly long shelf life”
Studies like these can help you better understand the spread of plastic waste and come up with ideas to prevent it. Studies with drifting gauges can also provide important on-site data for the development of weather models. “Ultimately, it could improve the weather forecast or even improve the forecast for the coming decades, against the backdrop of climate change,” Behr said.
The current rule for plastic animals is not clear. “I do not think any of them are on the way yet. 30 years of wind, waves and ultraviolet radiation have made plastics brittle, implicitly they have shattered into microplastics,” said marine researcher Wolf. Johanna Behr From the ice. “Rubber ducks have a dangerous long shelf life, like all plastics that end up in the ocean.”