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The Drift Bottle Project

Learn about drift bottles, drifters through the ages, project organizers and the study of flow.

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About drift bottles

We use drift bottles to study ocean surface currents. A drift bottle is a very simple piece of scientific equipment, made up of an empty glass bottle with a watertight lid and a note inside it. The note explains how to make contact with the research project.

Project participants throw these bottles over the side of ocean-going ships and note the 'drop' location of each bottle. When a bottle is found and reported to us, we add the location information to our database for analysis.

Project history

Over the centuries, drift bottles have been used as a means of:

  • advertising
  • tracking ocean currents
  • transmitting information
  • sending messages requesting help

The Institute of Ocean Science drift bottle project began in 2000 as a contribution to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police's St. Roch II Millennium Project. At that time we dropped bottles:

  • around Alaska
  • through the Canadian Arctic
  • along the west coast of Canada

Since then, we've dropped additional bottles:

  • in the Arctic
  • north from the Panama Canal to the Bahamas
  • along the west coast of North America from Victoria to the Panama Canal

Organizers and volunteers

The drift bottle project is based out of the Institute of Ocean Sciences in Sidney, British Columbia.

Eddy Carmack established the project. He'd read about the amazing journeys drift bottles had made and thought that, with a little planning, drift bottles could be harnessed for scientific purposes.

Dr. Curtis Ebbesmeyer's success advancing the science of ocean drifting objects motivated the study. Julie Lobb and Peter van Hardenberg both helped with collecting the data, and many volunteers have aided with putting individual messages into the bottles.

Bottle droppers include:

  • crews of the:
    • Sedna IV
    • St. Roch II
  • icebreakers:
    • Motor Vessel Simon Fraser
    • Canadian Coast Guard ships:
      • Sir Wilfrid Laurier
      • Louis St. Laurent
  • Students On Ice, on board the Akademik Ioffe

The project is successful because everyone who has reported a find.

mage showing recovery locations.

mage showing recovery locations.

Ocean Currents

Ocean Currents

Transit lines calculated using maximum travel time and minimum travel distance.

Transit lines calculated using maximum travel time and minimum travel distance.

Project results

Path showing how we expect drift bottles to travel using the northern drift hypothesis.

Path showing how we expect drift bottles to travel using the northern drift hypothesis.

A bottle recovery is only useful if it includes its drop number and the information about where it was found. We check the drop number against our location list to find out how far it travelled.

Some bottles journey thousands of miles, such as from the Arctic Ocean to the Caribbean. These results show that drift bottles travel approximately 5 to 10 kilometres a day. Because some bottles sit on the beach for long periods or take unexpected routes, we can only calculate maximum travel time and minimum travel distance.

Unfound bottles

We only find 1 in every 25 bottles. The others remain unfound because they:

  • sink
  • end up buried in sand
  • wash up where nobody ever visits
  • leak enough to make the note inside illegible

The unfound bottles eventually break down and become part of the marine environment.

Ocean circulation

The information collected from the drift project is important because it allows oceanographers to verify the theories of ocean circulation. Each bottle that turns up along the expected 'ocean highways' helps to strengthen existing theories.

So far, no bottles have turned up outside of the expected path. However, a bottle appearing to have followed an unusual current pattern could lead to new research and new theories.

Understanding the world's oceans helps us to know when circulation patterns change. In this case, new kinds of water can arrive at the coast and change temperatures. This can affect weather thousands of kilometres away from the coast and cause events such as:

  • storms
  • flooding
  • droughts

Examples of this may be found in the El Nino effect, which changed ocean currents and had climate impacts around the globe.

Changes in ocean circulation can also impact fish and other marine life. New currents bring in different water and sometimes new pollution sources that can find their way into entire ocean ecosystems.

Every bottle report returned to the drift bottle project helps to strengthen the understanding of the oceans and assists in monitoring them for changes.

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