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Japanese tsunami aftermath floating Alaska's way

Doug O'Harra
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
Japanese tsunami debris on the open ocean, March 2011.
U.S. Navy photo

A bobbing mass of wreckage — the shattered flotsam washed to sea after a tsunami swept across 180 square miles of land in northern Japan on March 11 — has begun to sweep in slow motion across the Pacific Ocean toward Alaska.

Simulated on a computer model unveiled at an international conference about ocean garbage, this tangled flotilla will begin washing up on beaches in Southeast and other West Coast zones within three years, according to a pair of Hawaiian scientists.

“The plume will reach the US West Coast, dumping debris on Californian beaches and the beaches of British Columbia, Alaska, and Baja California,” predicted the Nikolai Maximenko and Jan Hafner at the International Pacific Research Center, University of Hawaii at Manoa in this story about their work.

But that’s only the beginning.

By the end of 2014, the leading edge will have penetrated Southcentral waters, delivering a high-tide litter that might include tires, household and personal items, toys, shoes, construction fragments, tattered plastic and vinyl scraps, splintered wood, dockage, ropes, floats and the other tragic jetsam of Japan’s worst catastrophe since World War II.

What doesn’t wash ashore, sink into the abyss or get swallowed by sea creatures will keep circulating, finally roiling into the perpetual deep ocean gyre of human-generated refuse known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Though some of the stuff will make land in Hawaii within 18 months on its first pass across the ocean, much more will strand over years as the gyre brings the debris around again, and again.

“It moves eastward, just north of Hawaii and moves toward the Pacific garbage patch and stays there and eventually that garbage will escape to our Hawaiian shores,” said Maximenko told Honolulu’s KITV in story aired in March.

Within five to six years, a vast mess that originated in a few moments of destruction on Japan will be fouling beaches and reefs of the eastern North Pacific, magnifying the problem of refuse entangling and killing marine life, Maximenko and Hafner later told the Fifth International Marine Debris Conference in Honolulu.

By then, much of it will have been reduced to tiny fragments, what scientists call “micro-plastics,” inorganic bits that can be easily ingested by sea life and may end up in the human food chain with unknown health consequences. But Maimenko warned there could be other impacts.

“Who knows, there maybe we will see radioactive spews from nuclear reactors,” he told KITV. “It is not debris, but it is driven by the same currents so there are many dimensions to this problem.”

Spawned by the Earth’s fourth biggest quake

While most ocean garbage traces to careless practices of industry and spills off ships, this material was launched by what may soon become the most expensive natural tragedy in history.

A 9.0 magnitude Megathrust earthquake struck 45 miles east of the Tōhoku region in northern Japan on March 11, shifting tectonic plates 20 miles beneath the ocean floor in what scientists say is the fourth biggest temblor ever measured.

The quake yanked Japan about eight feet closer to North America and caused the seabed to snap upward about 20 feet along a 110-mile stretch of coast. That sudden lurch generated tsunamis that often rose at least 25 feet (reported in one location as topping 124 feet) when they roared ashore and then rushed up to six miles inland through urban areas and farmland. As they flushed in and then receded, the waves destroyed or damaged more than 140,000 houses and buildings in 28 towns, reducing entire neighborhoods to rubble.

More than four million households lost power, and three nuclear reactors experienced explosions after cooling systems failed, triggering the worst nuclear power plant crisis since the meltdown at Chernobyl 25 years ago. Japanese authorities now believe at least 28,000 people are dead or missing, with searches for bodies still dominating the news almost one month after the disaster.

One aftermath? Uncounted tons of material floated into the ocean on the retreating tsunami waves. Every thing that might float away, the detritus of modern civilization, is now floating toward North America on the currents.

"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 as a way to chart currents, described it to the Associated Press last week.

Making the ocean debris crisis even worse

The problem of human refuse and floatable trash spreading across the world’s seas has grown exponentially worse in recent decades. The items range from mile-long ghost nets that ensnare and strangle marine life to tiny particles that appear almost indistinguishable from plankton, the foundation of the marine food web.

“Even before the tsunami, the World Ocean was 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. “The massive, concentrated debris launched by the devastating tsunami is now magnifying the hazards.”

At least 267 species across the world regularly suffer injury from getting snared or eating debris — including most sea turtle species, almost half of all seabirds and 43 percent of marine mammals, according to a United Nations report about the Honolulu conference.

"Marine debris — trash in our oceans — is a symptom of our throw-away society and our approach to how we use our natural resources," said United Nations Evironmemnt Programme Executive Director Achim Steiner in a message to conference delegates. "The impact of marine debris today on flora and fauna in the oceans is one that we must now address with greater speed,"

Any visitor to the lonely beaches of the Southern Alaska’s Gulf Coast, from Prince William Sound to the Kenai Fiords, will find all kinds of plastic and other junk snarled in the driftwood and littering the shore. A recent study found 36,000 pieces of garbage ranging in size from a tiny float to a chest freezer along one stretch of Pacific Northwest coastline, appearing every where from deep inside coastal fiords to 90 miles offshore, reported the Vancouver Sun.

“Of that, 49 percent is Styrofoam or similar polystyrene products, 15 per cent plastic bottles, 10.5 per cent plastic bags and 6.3 per cent fishing gear. The rest of the garbage, slightly less than 20 per cent of the total, includes plastic, cardboard, wrappers, buoys, aluminum cans, and so on.”

Tracking where the stuff might go

Maximenko is one of a group of oceanographers who has been tracking how this stuff gets carried around the ocean on currents and figuring out where it might land. He has helped pin down the locations of five major regions where human jetsam collects inside immense gyres. Scientists have taken to calling these areas “garbage patches” — one per major ocean basin.

Seattle oceanographer Ebbesmeyer is another. After an Asian ship spilled thousands of Nike sneakers in 1990, he began collecting reports from beachcombers finding unworn (if not soggy) shoes on beaches from California to Alaska. With retired NOAA researcher Jim Ingraham, he adapted a computer program aimed at tracking salmon into tracking spilled cargo.

After 29,000 bath toys washed off a container ship in 1992 in the eastern Pacific, it was Ebbesmeyer and Ingraham who used beachomber reports and their computer program to track a 17,000-mile itinerary that delivered rubber ducks, blue turtles and green frogs to the beaches of North America, Europe, Australia and South America.

Now Ebbesmeyer and Ingraham plan to use their program to track the tsunami debris as it bears down on the Pacific Coast.

"In two years, there's going to be stuff coming in (from Japan), and probably lots of it," John Anderson, a Forks, Wash., beachcomber, told the Associated Press in a story that appeared in dozens of outlets around the world. "Some of it is bound to come in."

The computer model created by Maximenko and Hafner predicts the Japanese debris will float eastward on the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre for a year before some of it begins washing up on sensitive habitats in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument.

With two years, the main Hawaiian Islands will catch some tsunami trash, and by three years, “the plume” will reach the U.S. West Coast, spreading north and south, with tide rips carrying remnants of Japan's nightmare into Alaska's nearshore waters.

“These model projections will help to guide clean-up and tracking operations,” the researchers said here. “Tracking will be important in determining what happens to different materials in the tsunami debris, for example, how the composition of the debris plume changes with time, and how the winds and currents separate objects drifting at different speeds.”