"Flotsametrics and the Floating World"
by Curtis Ebbesmeyer and Eric Scigliano
Reading history and reviews
Finished on 28th February 2010What a fascinating book. "Flotsametrics..." is an autobiographical account along the lines of Alexandra Morton's Listening to Whales, in which the author's life and career is intimately entwined with advances in human knowledge. In Morton's case it was our understanding of killer whales, and in Ebbesmeyer's it is our knowledge of how the oceans of the world move and behave.
I remember first hearing about Ebbesmeyer in connection with the news story about the flotilla of plastic ducks that were accidentally dumped at sea and periodically wash up en-masse on beaches around the world (for a UK-related example see this 2007 article from the Daily Mail), and much of his career has been involved in tracking these and other floating objects - including container ship spills of hockey gloves and Nike sneakers, as well as glass fishing floats and "MIBs" (messages in bottles) - as they travel across (or perhaps more accurately orbit around) the world's oceans. The book is filled with colourful stories and anecdotes - both historical and personally from Ebbesmeyer's own career about the different kinds of drifters and how data on them is collected (including networks of volunteer and hobbist beachcombers around the world). It's also fascinating how many diverse areas Ebbesmeyer touches on along the way (from Edgar Allen Poe, through the founding of the first Icelandic cities, and whether the Japanese pre-dated the Polynesians in Hawaii). Many of the stories can also be found on The Beachcombers Alert website.
What becomes clear through the book is how poorly understood the oceans and their movements are, even with the work of Ebbesmeyer and others. Vast as the oceans are it seems we're only now acquiring an appreciation of how the various oceanic "gyres" (essentially, the many circulating ocean currents) fit together, how they have influenced both the natural world and human history, and how fragile they may be and susceptible to changes in the Earth's climate.
It's both inspiring and a little depressing. However Ebbesmeyer's enthuasism for the subject continually shines through, and the authors excel at making the various discoveries accessible to a lay audience - ultimately making this a really joyful read which I'd thoroughly recommend.