Cards intended to determine currents, engage the public
SOUTH PADRE ISLAND — Like a message in a bottle, more than 1,000 bright yellow drift cards have been released into the Gulf of Mexico to track ocean currents. Anybody who finds one is urged to follow the printed directions and contact the Texas A&M University officials in charge of the program. There could even be a small gift for some lucky finders.
“So far this year, we’ve released over 1,000 of these bright yellow 3-inch by 5-inch drift cards made of marine plywood,” said Dr. Piers Chapman, head of Texas A&M’s department of oceanography. “And to date, we’re pleased that 200 have been returned, which is a very high rate of return.”
The study is designed to track drifting of potential oil spills and to educate the public about currents, he said.
“This project is a component of a research program — the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative — that funded eight major consortia following the British Petroleum Deep Horizon drilling rig blowout in 2010,” Chapman said. “This is one of several outreach activities. We will get a lot of useful information on currents, but we’re interested in generating public interest in what goes on in our oceans, where things end up.”
Since early April, the drift cards have been released off the coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida and Texas, Chapman said. Another 2,000-3,000 will be released by the end of summer, with a total of 5,000 eventually deployed.
In Texas, the drift cards were released between Brownsville and Galveston.
“We use research cruises and cruises of opportunity to release the drift cards,” he said. “Some are released close to shore and others farther offshore. Those released closest to the shore generally hit the beach first. Ten are dropped off at each location and they don’t all go in the same direction.”
To alert the public in South Texas about the project, Tony Reisinger, the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service agent for coastal and marine resources in Cameron County, has been posting placards at public areas in Port Isabel and South Padre Island.
“It’s fascinating to learn about the currents in the Gulf of Mexico and the role they play in our unique ecology here,” he said. “For example, there’s a coastal current that comes up from Mexico. Back in the late 1970’s when Ixtoc I blew out in the Bay of Campeche in Mexico, currents brought oil ashore here on South Padre Island well into the early 80s. In fact, the Brazos Santiago Pass was boomed off to keep oil out of the bay. So, it’s important to know where and how Gulf currents flow.”
Those who find yellow drift cards that wash ashore are asked to note the date, place and time the card was found. Instructions on how to report the information are printed in both English and Spanish.
“Someone walking along a beach may not know their precise location, but if they can tell us within a few miles of where they are, that will suffice,” Chapman said. “Anybody who finds one offshore is asked to call in the information, then return the card to the water. If they call after business hours, they can leave a message. We make an effort to make contact with everybody who calls in.”
A monthly drawing of those who find the cards is held to award them a $25 gift card.
“The first winner was a lady from Ohio who found a card while on vacation in Florida,” he said.
Each card has a corresponding number that is used to determine where it was originally released.
“Ocean currents are caused by the rotation of the earth and other factors,” Chapman said. “They are influenced by wind patterns. If something floats, including oil spills, the currents will move it, and it could wind up many miles from where it started.”
Of the 200 drift cards collected thus far, not all have been analyzed yet, but most have ended up where they were expected to, based on current knowledge of ocean currents, Chapman said.
The location of where the cards were deployed and found can be tracked on the Gulf Integrated Spill Response Consortium website at http://gisr.tamu.edu.
“We will respect people’s privacy, but if we’re given permission, we will eventually post on our website the photos of the people who find drift cards,” Chapman said.