In 1992, a cargo container filled with more than 28,000 rubber ducks plunged into the North Pacific, and spent more than ten years floating around the world. By studying the travelogue of the ducks, scientists were later able to gather enough data to predict the dynamics of objects floating in the oceans.
What the researchers first noticed about the ducks is that drifting objects take longer to journey between oceans than they had previously thought.
As the BBC reports:
Erik van Sebille of the University of New South Wales in Australia and colleagues confirmed this suspicion by using a network of around 20,000 satellite-tracked 'drifter' buoys. They found that there are six major patches of plastic garbage in the oceans: five in the subtropical seas, and one more high up in the Arctic Barents Sea that was previously unknown. And crucially, this work revealed how the plastic migrates between the patches over long timescales.
Their research inspired them to create Adrift—an interactive map, that allows users to explore how all kinds of objects drift through the ocean, from rubber ducks to plastic pollution, and where each object might end up if it is washed out to sea from your beach.
The scientists hope, by engaging the public with this map, they can vividly illustrate the environmental consequences of plastic, which can remain adrift for decades. "It can entangle marine animals, or they can mistake it for food and eat it. If that happens, the plastic gets into the food-chain, and in particular the chemicals in the plastics can be very harmful."