Japan tsunami debris expected on Alaska shores soon

Mike Dunham

Debris from the March 11 Japan tsunami has reached Washington state and British Columbia. According to predictions from a leading oceanographer, Alaskans can expect to see flotsam -- perhaps tons of it -- washing up on beaches soon.

On Tuesday, a black float about the size of a 55-gallon drum was displayed in Port Angeles, Wash., on the Olympic Peninsula where it had been found a few miles east of Neah Bay.

On Wednesday, Canadian television showed photos of bottles and metal containers that washed up near Tofino, in the middle of the west coast of Vancouver Island. One resident interviewed said he had "never seen such a large quantity of debris at once."

An even larger quantity is out there. Much larger.

In September, the Russian ship Pallada reported encountering a vast stretch of debris 2,000 miles from Japan. The Pallada -- a tall-masted sailing ship used to train sailors that visited Kodiak and Sitka in July of this year -- took seven days to pass through the flotsam. By some estimates the area of the mass is twice the size of Texas.

No tsunami-related debris has been reported in Alaska, according to the Center for Alaska Coastal Studies in Homer and the Marine Conservation Alliance Foundation in Juneau. But that may speak more to the absence of observers than to the oceanographer's predictions.

"We have not seen anything as of yet," said Dave Gaudet with the Marine Conservation Alliance on Friday. "But of course our weather, being what it is, people really aren't out there looking. December is not prime beachcombing time in Southeast Alaska."

The panhandle has been plagued with a lot of storms this fall, he said. The area around Craig, on Prince of Wales Island 500 miles north of Tofino, is a likely candidate for the first landfall in Alaska. But Gaudet said he had been in touch with parties in Craig who told him bad weather was making it impractical to scout around the sprawling and sparsely inhabited island.

Earlier this year, Seattle oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer, retired from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration where, among other things, he tracked the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill as it was picked up by ocean currents, predicted the debris would hit America's west coast from Puget Sound to the Gulf of Alaska. He initially expected it to arrive by Halloween.

"By Pearl Harbor Day (Dec. 7), none had been reported," he noted on his website, beachcombersalert.org. In fact the Neah Bay float had been found, but not yet identified as tsunami flotsam.

On Tuesday Ebbesmeyer appeared with colleague Jim Ingraham at the Port Angeles event. They asked members of the public to be watching for large deposits of debris that might include everything from houses and boats to pieces of cars and "just about anything else that floats."

Including shoes that could contain the feet of tsunami victims.

"All debris should be treated with great reverence and respect," Ebbesmeyer told the Port Angeles Peninsula Daily News. Families of victims are anxious for any information that can be gleaned from traceable items.

Caution is also in order. The earthquake and tsunami damaged nuclear power facilities and experts warn that water contained in items might be radioactive.

The float found near Neah Bay and the bottles washing up in Tofino are among the first items to arrive because they're light enough to float high in the water where they are more exposed to winds that can speed their progress. But bulkier items can also be expected, even improbably heavy ones. Among the things the crew of the Pallada reported bobbing in the water was a television set. Slower moving items might not reach America until 2013.

Reach Mike Dunham at mdunham@adn.com or 257-4332.

Anchorage Daily News / adn.com