Accidental and intentional plastic rides the ocean

Dean Orbison of Sitka with the 130 floating toys he and his family have found on Southeast Alaska beaches. The toys include green frogs, yellow ducks that have faded to a cream color, blue turtles, and red beavers that have faded to white. (Photo courtesy of Dean Orbison)

Twenty-eight years after scientists spilled hundreds of plastic disks on ice in the Beaufort Sea north of Alaska to determine ocean currents, another one came home to roost at the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

In the summer of 2007, graduate student Nathan Coutsoubos of UAF’s Resilience and Adaptation Program found a yellow plastic disk on the tundra in Barrow, just 60 feet from a salt-water lagoon. He picked up the disk and saw a printed message: One Dollar Reward on Return of Serial Number with Date Found, Location, Your Name and Address to Geophysical Institute, Univ. of Alaska, Fairbanks.

Coutsoubos, who was studying shorebirds on the North Slope, brought the disk back to Fairbanks, where he returned it to Roberta Greenlee of the Geophysical Institute’s Business Office. Greenlee has handed out these dollars for years, but not since 1998, when two brothers in Scotland returned a disk they had found in the rocks there.

In 1979, scientists scattered 1,500 of the seven-inch disks on the sea ice around Prudhoe Bay to see how oil spilled there might drift. Researchers involved with the project wrote up the final report long ago after people found hundreds of disks in North Slope villages and collected their dollars, but a few of the disks endure.

The 1979 experiment wasn’t the first time scientists dropped things in Alaska waters that they hoped others would find. From 1956 to 1959, Canadian scientists stuffed messages into 19,000 12-ounce brown beer bottles and set them adrift in the Gulf of Alaska. In the notes, they asked the finders to tell them where they picked the bottles up, so they could better understand ocean currents. The last published report of a message-in-a-bottle find was in 1972.

Today, scientists use floating buoys, computer models, satellites, and other high-tech methods to learn more about ocean currents, but researchers still get a lot of information from objects floating on the ocean, many of them as a result of shipping accidents.

Dean Orbison of Sitka and his son Tyler have gained a bit of fame among beachcombers for their collection of 130 floating plastic turtles, ducks, beavers, and frogs that are a subset of 28,800 bath toys that fell off a ship in the North Pacific in January 1992.

According to Seattle oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer, the Orbison’s bath toys were caught up in the Pacific Subarctic Gyre, a counterclockwise circulation of water that extends from the southern coast of Alaska to Kamchatka in Russia. Objects floating in the gyre make complete tours of the

North Pacific about every three years, Ebbesmeyer wrote in an article in EOS, a publication of the American Geophysical Union.

Dean Orbison said his records of when he picked up the bath toys, confirmed by entries in his boat log, support the theory that the toys are riding the Subarctic Gyre. Dean and Tyler do much of their beachcombing based off their 38-foot boat, The Prost. The Orbisons’ favorite items to find are glass floats formerly used on nets by Japanese fishermen, which are getting more rare, unlike some plastic items.

“The single biggest item we’ve found in the last five years is plastic water bottles,” Orbison said.

Plastic is all over the world’s oceans. In 2000, a researcher in Hawaii picked apart the regurgitated pellets of 144 albatrosses and found plastic in every single one. Sun breaks plastic down to a small extent, but the floating toys and other items will never completely disappear.

“Ultimately, the toys will return to dust,” wrote Ebbesmeyer in his Beachcombers Alert! newsletter, “joining the scum of plastic powder (that) rides the global ocean.”

This column is provided as a public service by the Geophysical Institute,

University of Alaska Fairbanks, in cooperation with the UAF research community. Ned Rozell is a science writer at the institute. This column first appeared in 2007.

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