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Debris Headed to a Beach Near You? Sailors Track Tsunami's Destruction from Japan to US

In one event, an estimated 3 billion pounds of buoyant debris washed from Japan’s shores. Here's a firsthand account of where some of that went.

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But beyond the science, the expedition team traveled to the tsunami affected north of Japan to seek a metaphorical alpha point for the voyage. Near Sendai, in the northern prefectures next to where the Fukushima meltdown occurred, the land was quiet, nearly deserted as the government had just opened the area, citing acceptable levels of radiation. Geiger counters could be bought just about anywhere, and we had procured a cheap version from a local 7/11 just to be safe.

The landscape was decimated, haunting. Here there were untold amounts of destroyed rice fields, thousands of empty house foundations, lost neighborhoods, and walking through the destruction was akin to stepping into the first chapters of Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us. Streets abruptly ended at cliffs above new streams and tributaries.  Scattered everywhere were all manner of human effects: children’s stuffed animals, toys, kitchen supplies, picture-less frames.  Along the side of the road were piles and piles of debris that had been sorted by type. Things like mattresses were piled 50 feet high and a quarter mile long as well as toilets, metal, concrete, cars, wood, glass.  The constant hum of heavy equipment burning diesel could be heard as slowly, painstakingly, Japan dug out from a topography-altering catastrophe. But where the debris would go was in question—protests in other prefectures had erupted as no one wanted potentially radiated tsunami debris in their own backyard. On the beach was plastic, stratified in the sand by wind, and I couldn’t help but note that even after a tsunami, I saw less plastic trash on this beach than ones I’d seen in Nicaragua, South Africa, and Portugal. 

Our team volunteered to help with disaster relief, agreeing to spend a day digging out a woman’s house from a mudslide that buried one side of it. At first, the Japanese officials overseeing the volunteers were skeptical of us: what was this rag tag group of artists, photographers, scientists, journalists and activists doing here?  But one thing translates beyond any language barrier: hard work. We labored for hours digging mud and quickly we had won the hearts of our Japanese foreman.  And after this breakthrough the formality dropped and they shared their personal stories of the tsunami as we sat and listen to them, silent. They told missives of loss, pollution and government infighting. They talked about the uncertain future of nuclear power in Japan.

But for all the sadness of their tales, one thing was certain: it was entirely un-Japanese to wallow in self-pity—no, the Japanese are incredibly strong culturally and are tirelessly working to rebuild their country.  The two defining characteristics of the people we observed were resilience and efficiency. In fact, these people were years ahead already of where Hurricane Katrina relief was dropped years ago. 

To Sea

On the coat tails of the first typhoon of season, Mawar, our team left Yokohama Harbor on June 11 th bound for Hawaii, some 3,500 nautical miles away following Maximenko’s model of the tsunami debris field. In total, we had a crew of 12 aboard all cramped into a poorly ventilated sailing vessel, some 72 feet long. Our team included Brazilian, Australian, Swiss, Mexican, Bermudian, South Korean, USA and UK nationals. Skill sets varied from the artistic, to waste management professionals, coastal cleanup coordinators, journalists, photographers, filmmakers, professional sailors, and scientists all at the forefront of their fields. The model of the expedition is unlike other research voyages; this team was assembled to study not only the tsunami debris, but also the debris within the context of the larger anthropogenic pollution problem in the gyres and then communicate his or her experience to a global audience; all at different touch points and with different constituencies from opposite hemispheres of the brain. The shared ethos amongst the crew was this: one, a global problem requires a global response; two, the tragedy of the tsunami is an opportunity to educate on a bigger scale to a captive, engaged audience.

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