Alaska Science Forum

August 23, 2011

The experiment that never ends

Article #2078

A plastic disc from an experiment 30 years ago, found by Paul Boots on Alaska’s North Slope in late July 2011.

Photo by Paul Boots.

Some experiments never end. Especially ones involving plastic objects released in the far north.

In late July 2011, Paul Boots, a supervisor at an
oilfield on Alaska’s North Slope, found a small, yellow plastic disc on a
creekbed. Scientists 30 years ago tossed the disc into the sea as part
of a study on arctic oil spills.

Boots, who works at the large gravel pad that hosts the
Badami oil field, was with his coworkers on an annual cleanup day along
a nameless creek just west of the gravel pad.

“I was enjoying a beautiful day and strayed a bit
farther than most in my search for ‘fugitive emissions’ (everything we
pick up has been blown off of our pad),” he wrote in an email. “I found
the disc about 50 yards from the saltwater.”

Boots at first thought the saucer was part of a weather
balloon. Then he saw a typewritten message: “One Dollar Reward on
Return of Serial Number With Date Found, Location, Your Name and Address
to Geophysics Institute, Univ. of Alaska, Fairbanks.”

More interested in finding the history of the disc than
making a buck, Boots sent a to-whom-it-may-concern message to Blake
Moore at the Alaska Climate Research Center at the Geophysical
Institute. Knowing I’ve been around here for many moons, Blake forwarded
the message to me.

The discs have been subjects of these weekly columns a
few times, the first by Larry Gedney in 1982. Gedney wrote of how
researcher Brian Matthews and his coworkers released 6,800 of the yellow
discs, called drifters, into lagoons and the open sea along the
coastline near Prudhoe Bay from 1977 until 1981.

Gedney, one of my favorite writers of this column
(which has existed since 1976), described the disc as resembling “a
yellow freshman beanie with a two-foot-long flexible stem extending
downward from its center.” There were two types of drifter — one that
floated on the surface and one with a small brass weight attached to the
stem that made it float just below the water’s surface. The stems seem
to be the only part of the disc that has disappeared.

People living and working on the North Slope recovered
and sent in about 900 of the discs by the time of Gedney’s story, but
most of the originals endure somewhere out there. Official monitoring of
the experiment ended when Matthews departed from Alaska in the early
1980s, but thanks to the infinite endurance of plastic and the ink
message somehow still emblazed on the discs, a few have found their way
back to the Geophysical Institute.

In 1998, two brothers beachcombing in northern Scotland
found one of the discs and returned it. The disc made it to Scotland
after spinning in an ocean current by the North Pole for about a decade
before it was spit through Fram Strait, UAF oceanographer Tom
Weingartner said at the time. In 2007, a UAF graduate student studying
birds on the tundra near Barrow found another one about 60 feet from a
lagoon.

At a time when environmental groups are challenging oil
companies to prove they can clean up oil spills in the Arctic, a task
that is difficult even in settings where oil booms and skimmer boats are
on-site, the drifter experiment also points out the remarkable
resilience of plastic, a substance that even in its flimsiest form will
outlive us all.

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.