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Checking out the Alaska-bound trash from Japan's tsunami

Doug O'Harra
Japanese tsunami debris on the open ocean, March 2011.
U.S. Navy photo
Debris float in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Japan after an earthquake and subsequent tsunami struck the nation on March 11.
U.S. Navy photo
An aerial view of debris from an 8.9 magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami that struck northern Japan.
U.S. Navy photo
This figure shows the probable pathways of the debris that entered the ocean on March 11, 2011, as estimated from historical trajectories of drifting buoys
Nikolai Maximenko, International Pacific Research Center

A Russian sailing ship -- said to be the world's fastest frigate -- has found the leading edge of tsunami debris from the devastating Japanese earthquake in the middle of the Pacific Ocean about 2,000 miles southeast of Japan and 2,600 miles southwest of Cook Inlet.

And this Alaska-size patch of flotsam appears to be on schedule for its Pacific Northwest debut in 2014.

The bizarre sightings of bobbing TV sets, refrigerators, wash basins, boots and at least one small boat from Japan offer the first confirmation of a computer simulation developed to track the trajectory of millions of tons of garbage on its multi-year trip toward the beaches of Hawaii and Alaska.

Once snarled on shore or fouled on reefs, this immense litter of plastics, wood, metal and fabric might set in motion a second tragedy -- the entanglement and poisoning of North Pacific marine life.

Using maps produced by scientists at the International Pacific Research Center of the University of Hawaii, the crew and student cadets aboard the STS Pallada began finding material from the tsunami on Sept. 22, soon after they cruised past Midway Islands, the uninhabited outpost to the Hawaiian archipeligo.

"We picked up on board the Japanese fishing boat," wrote Natalia Borodina, the Pallada's information and education mate, in this story. "At the approaches to the mentioned position (maybe 10 – 15 minutes before) we also sighted a TV set, fridge and a couple of other home appliances."

Since the Japanese disaster had triggered explosions at three nuclear reactors when cooling systems failed, the Pallada crew also began checking the material for radiation.

"Radioactivity level -- normal," Borodina reported. "We've measured it with the Geiger counter."

The reports from Pallada, coming six months after the March 11 quake, offered a reality check to a sophisticated computer model that deployed ocean current data and previous tracking of debris to predict where the tsunami material might go and when it might arrive.

"For nearly half a year, senior researcher Nikolai Maximenko and computer programmer Jan Hafner had only their state-of-the-art -- but still untested -- computer model of currents to speculate," explained this story from the research center. "Now sightings of the debris are reported from places where the model predicted."

The data will let Maximenko and Hafner fine-tune their estimates of when the material will begin washing ashore in the far-flung Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument -- the vast marine refuge that includes 10 protected islands and atolls of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

"The first landfall on Midway Islands is anticipated this winter," the research center said here. "What misses Midway will continue towards the main Hawaiian Islands and the North American West Coast."

A devastating quake and its ocean-littering aftermath

This colossal mass of trash was launched into the sea after a magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck northern Japan on March 11 with the fourth most powerful temblor on record. The shaking ultimately triggered one of the most damaging tsunamis ever seen in a populated area. Some of the waves rose as high as 133 feet as they flushed up to six miles inland -- destroying or damaging 125,000 houses and buildings in 28 towns. More than 15,800 people died.

When these waves receded, they carried off everything that might float, sending the detritus of modern civilization on a slo-mo trip toward North America.

"If you put a major city through a trash grinder and sprinkle it on the water, that's what you're dealing with," is how Curt Ebbesmeyer, a Seattle-based oceanographer and a pioneer in the tracking ocean debris, described it at the time.

The tsunami's mess is expected to make a major local contribution to the worldwide problem of human refuse spreading across the world’s oceans. The items range from mile-long ghost nets that strangle marine life to tiny bits of plastic indistinguishable from plankton.

"Even before the tsunami, (oceans were) a dump for rubbish flowing in from rivers, washed off beaches, and jettisoned from oil and gas platforms and from fishing, tourist, and merchant vessels," the researchers said in this story posted last spring soon after the quake. "The massive, concentrated debris launched by the devastating tsunami is now magnifying the hazards."

Victims of sea-borne jetsam include at least 267 species, including half of all seabirds and more than 40 percent of all marine mammals, according this United Nations report. Visitors to Alaska beaches can find their own samples of nets, ropes, plastic jugs, wood, metal and other human junk entangled with driftwood and vegetation. One study found 36,000 pieces of garbage along one stretch of Pacific Northwest coastline, from deep inside fiords to 90 miles offshore.

By mid-September, Maximenko and Hafner were estimating that the  "cloud" of tsunami trash stretched at least 1,000 miles across and contained 10 million to 20 million pounds of floating rubble from Japan. But its exact location was unknown. They put out a call to ships to watch for signs. Their goal? Anticipate landfall and be prepared to take action, if possible, to protect marine life.

Enter the Pallada: watching for tsunami stuff

The STS Pallada -- a 354-foot, three-masted frigate styled to resemble a "tall ship" from the golden age of sail -- was heading home after spending three months cruising the North Pacific with a crew of cadets from the Russian Far Eastern State Technical Fishing University.

Since it was launched in 1989, the Pallada has visited 101 ports in 35 countries while training 12,000 Russian cadets, midshipmen and students, according to this story. With 26 sails covering more than two-thirds of an acre of area, area, the vessel has been clocked at 18 knots, earning it a listing as the world's fastest sailing ship by Guinness World World Records.

The 2011 goodwill tour commemorated the 270th anniversary of the colonization of Alaska by Russia and the 50th anniversary of the first manned flight into space cosmonaut Yuri Gargarin. During the 15,000-mile voyage, the ship visited Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Victoria, Honolulu -- plus the long-ago Russian outpost of Kodiak.

By late September, the ship was underway toward its homeport, crossing deep ocean about 1,700 miles northwest of Hawaii. That's where it began bumping into tsunami trash -- right where the computer model predicted they would.

And on it went: mile after mile, day after day.

"We keep sighting every day things like wooden boards, plastic bottles, buoys from fishing nets (small and big ones), an object resembling a wash basin, drums, boots, other wastes," Borodina reported Sept. 27. "All these objects are floating by the ship."

The Pallada reached Vladivostok Oct. 8 and sent photos to the research institute in Honolulu. Their most intriguing find was the corroded, battered 20-foot skiff, still afloat in the middle of the ocean 2,000 miles and six months from the disaster.

"The markings on the wheel house of the boat show its home port to be in the Fukushima Prefecture, the area hardest hit by the tsunami," the scientists reported here.

Contact Doug O'Harra at doug(at)alaskadispatch.com