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Program monitoring Japanese tsunami debris launched in Alaska

  • Author: Craig Medred
  • Updated: September 27, 2016
  • Published January 18, 2012

Empty containers here, Styrofoam floats the size of 55-gallon drums there: debris from Japan's epic tsunami has begun washing up on the beaches of Kodiak and Yakutat -- and is expected to hit others soon.

The Marine Conservation Alliance Foundation (MCAF) based in Juneau is establishing a monitoring program to catalog and identify what turns up on Alaska shores.

"The monitoring program is designed to examine beaches in a systematic manner," the foundation's marine debris program coordinator, Dave Gaudet, said in a press release. "We will also use a random sampling technique to detect statistical changes in the overall volume of debris."

Wind driven debris can move 20 mph, about three times as fast as debris carried by ocean currents. The latter is expected to start arriving next year.

"After the overwhelming devastation in Japan, it is distressing to see reminders of it washing up on our shores," said Merrick Burden, the foundation's executive director. "Although we're planning cleanups for next summer, if a massive onslaught of tsunami debris hits, it will overwhelm our resources."

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is downplaying concerns that some debris may contain radiation. "By the time the (Fukushima) radioactive water leak developed, the debris was already in the ocean, miles from the reactor and moving farther offshore."

But the volume is huge. "This is unprecedented in recorded human history to have tsunami debris actually be able to be tracked across the ocean," Washington-based oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer, an expert in tracking ocean flotsam told KMXT radio last year. "We're dealing with an immense event with hundreds of millions of tons of debris on the water. The true dimensions of what's going on is probably not appreciated even now."

Currently, the U.S. House and Senate are debating reauthorization of the Marine Debris Act, which would devote funds to marine debris clean-up, including coastlines where tsunami debris makes landfall. Sen. Lisa Murkowski will host a discussion on the act and tsunami debris Friday at the University of Alaska Anchorage in Gorsuch Commons, room 107, beginning at 10:30 a.m.

Peter Murphy, with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Marine Debris Division, said that beachcombers are welcome to evaluate unusual items washing ashore on beaches.

Local beachcombers can be helpful discerning what's out of the ordinary, Murphy said, since "marine debris is already a significant problem in the world's oceans," making it hard to identify if a piece of debris originated from the Japanese tsunami. "It's very difficult to fingerprint debris back to its original owner or origin," he said.

• Report Debris Washed Ashore:

Facebook page for "SeaAlliance – Restoring Our Shores": Public invited to report their findings and post debris photos.