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Saturday, November 15, 2008

Rubber Ducks as Science?

Yesterday I saw another article in my favorite newspaper, THE WALL STREET JOURNAL. This was an article on science and its use of the yellow rubber duck.

When scientists wanted to probe under Greenland's glaciers they wondered what might endure subzero cold, the pressure of mile thick ice and currents that sometimes exceed the flow rate of Niagara Falls. The purpose of this project was to learn how rising temperatures may be undermining Greenland's ice cap where according to satellite measurements, glaciers are melting much faster than expected. Dr. Behar of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory had a tight budget and discovered one thing that might survive such conditions - a two dollar rubber duck. As a result, he and his colleagues at the University of Colorado released 90 yellow rubber ducks in the melt water that was flowing down a chasm in the largest of Greenland's glaciers which has been thinning rapidly since 1997. Each duck is imprinted with an email address and, in three languages, the offer of a reward. If all goes well, Dr. Behar hopes that one day they will emerge 30 miles or so away at the glacier's edge in the open water of Disko Bay.

In this era of billion dollar space telescopes, gene machines and city size particle accelerators, some scientists have to make do with tub toys and beer bottles and wooden tops set adrift around the world to solve questions of oceanography, glaciology and global warming.

This science was accidentally launched in 1992 when a storm washed a shipment of plastic ducks, turtles and frogs from a cargo container. As they washed ashore, some thousands of miles from the original spillage, scientists realized they could trace the toys back to the launch point, documenting previously unsuspected ocean currents.

Another scientist Dr. Das reported that she had seen one large glcial lake drain in 90 minutes through a fracture that split the ice 90 meters down to bedrock. Scientists suspect that these sub-glacial floods lubricate the bedrock under the ice sheets of Greenland and Antartica like a water slide and accelerate the rate at which glaciers flow to the sea and break apart. She decided to pour a non-toxic red dye into the melt water and expected it to come out into the bay in a day, or possibly half a week later. For a week she and her students cruised back and forth across Disko Bay with a sensor able to detect microscopic traces of the chemical. They never found it.

As more research is done on the mechanics of Greenland's glaciers, it is becoming obvious that the sub-surface water slide created by so much melting ice may be a short-lived seasonal effect. The glaciers speed up in the summer, but slow down in the fall. If this is true, there may be little risk that the ice sheet will collapse, at least not for the forseeable future.

Meanwhile, Dr. Behar seeks his wayward flock, submerged in currents of climate change. He also tossed into the melt water a small metal tube stuffed with sensors, including a satellite modem. It too has yet to turn up. Right now all Dr. Behar sees is water going into a big hole. They have no idea what it's like down there.

Maybe, just maybe the Loch Ness Monster is having a grand old time with all those little rubber duckies.

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