Japan Tsunami Debris May Not Be Giant Floating Field of Doom After All

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Scientists and government officials initially believed that the earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan last year sent millions of tons of trash on a collision course with Hawaii and the West Coast. But nine months later, the flotsam is still lost at sea somewhere and perhaps not nearly as enormous as originally thought.

The 9.0-magnitude earthquake that rocked Japan on March 11 was one of the five most powerful on record, so forceful that it sent a 25-foot wall of water smashing into the islands. As the ocean receded, it dragged with it buildings, cars, boats, garbage, and God only knows what else. Japanese officials estimated that 25 million pounds of wreckage was swept out to sea.

Since then, Sen. Maria Cantwell testified in Congress that the tsunami debris field is "five-times the size of the state of Washington" and poses "an emerging threat" to the state's economy. Just Monday, officials in Clallam County began emergency planning for the multiple "debris fields...1,000 miles wide and 2,000 miles long" they expect to hit Washington soon.

Dire as that may sound, it might still be possible to visit a Washington beach this summer and not stumble across the remains of a Japanese village. Satellite images captured shortly after the tsunami did show the flotsam as one giant mass, by April 14 the debris had dispersed. Scientists from NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, say that the materials have since scattered across the vast Pacific Ocean.

"When you hear the word 'debris field' you automatically think of a solid, matted field of debris which is not the case at this time," says Dianna Parker, spokeswoman for NOAA's marine debris program. "The debris fields we saw in the days after the tsunami are no longer visible from low resolution satellites...there's no way to tell exactly how big it is. Thee are no continuous borders, but we're working every day to try to get a better handle on exactly what's out there."

Parker notes that the 25 million tons statistic was only the Japanese government's best guess, and there is no solid data on how much debris was actually washed away. And while the material could include potentially hazardous items like oil drums, the consensus among scientists is that it is highly unlikely that any of material is radioactive.

Using sophisticated modeling techniques that predict the way objects move in the ocean currents, NOAA projected that the debris should have already started washing ashore on the remotest Hawaiian islands, a chain of uninhabited atolls that stretch for 1,200 nautical miles northwest of the main islands. What's left of the material is forecast to arrive on the West Coast in the coming months, and should circle back to the main part of Hawaii from 2014 to 2016.

Former University of Washington oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer (featured in a 2008 Seattle Weekly cover story about those floating tennis shoes with human feet that washed up on the shores of British Columbia) had the tsunami debris hitting the Washington coastline by October 31 of last year.

So far, however, NOAA has not been able to trace any marine debris back to Japan. But floating garbage washes ashore constantly and the agency has received plenty of calls from concerned citizens.

"When something does wash ashore we need to be sure," Parker says. "It's very difficult to fingerprint debris back to specific incidents...we need an item with a serial number on it or a buoy with markings on it." (NOAA has an email address dedicated to marine debris reports, should something fishy turn up on your beach.)

The best-case scenario, according to NOAA expert Carey Morishige, the Pacific Islands Regional Coordinator for the NOAA Marine Debris Program, is that most of the debris will decompose or sink in the ocean. (Though probably still not so great for the environment, one supposes this still better than clogged ports and wreckage-strewn beaches.)

But, have no fear, the feds say they are still working with local government agencies to develop a contingency plan that prepares Pacific coastal areas for the worst.

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