The Music of the Gyres

Our oceans are singing us an important song. It’s time to listen.

Paul Greenberg

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Photo by Justin Lim on Unsplash

One of the world’s great ocean currents is slowing much faster than we ever thought it would. This according to a study published last month in the journal Nature. If that current, known as the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, or AMOC, continues to decelerate at its present rate it could collapsed entirely by century’s end. The world to follow will be so climatically chaotic that the extreme weather events of 2023 will seem quaint.

This news was oddly familiar to me because at the beginning of my writing career The New York Times happened to assign me a book to review called “Flotsametrics and the Floating World.” Other than my review, the book received scant attention at the time and disappeared quickly (as most books do). But news of the AMOC’s potential near-term collapse brought the odd science of Flotsametrics back to me in a troubling way. I share the review of the book below in hopes that others will be equally disturbed.

Flotsam and jetsam are two differentF things. Flotsam is an accident, debris that has fallen into the water haphazardly — a container full of sneakers swept off the deck of a ­freighter, for example. Jetsam, meanwhile is a thing of intent, cast into the sea deliberately, like a message in a bottle. This duality sums up the choppy but often surprising swirl Curtis Ebbesmeyer pulls together in “Flotsametrics and the Floating World: How One Man’s Obsession With Runaway Sneakers and Rubber Ducks Revolutionized Ocean Science,” written with the journalist Eric Scigliano.

Ebbesmeyer is a well-known oceanographer who has made a career out of tracking debris as it circulates around our planet’s 11 great oceanic gyres. But by his own admission, trying to give narrative coherence to his four-odd decades of processing beachcomber discoveries, analyzing bath toy spills and exploring oceanic “garbage patches” (one of which has a surface area twice the size of Texas) is akin to “drinking from a fire hose.” When approaching “Flotsametrics and the Floating World,” the reader must therefore parse the jetsam from the flotsam.

When it comes to the jetsam part — i.e., the part of the book with true intent — Ebbesmeyer’s goal is noble and fresh: to show how the…

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Paul Greenberg

New York Times bestselling author of Four Fish as well as The Climate Diet and Goodbye Phone, Hello World paulgreenberg.org