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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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Photo Credit: Lindsey Hoshaw

 
 
 
 

You can view a photo slideshow by Stiv Wilson of his journey here on AlterNet.

One March 11, 2011 a tsunami devastated Japan’s northern prefectures causing one of the worst human and environmental catastrophes in modern history.  The images of chaos and destruction were broadcast around the world, depicting one of the most awful natural disasters conceivable--a standing wave between 30-133 feet high traveling at 500 mph across the ocean, reaching as far as 6 miles inland. Such opulent power triggers something primeval in us—the survivalist—one can’t but help to place himself on a street, imagining what that wave would look like roaring down it at him. Oh the horror.

Still, over a year later, the public imagination is transfixed by the event as tsunami debris has begun to land on the shores of North America. Everyday, several stories emerge about agency cleanup efforts and curious flotsam. Fox News, for their part, in a startling moment of insensitivity said, “Who is going to pay for this cleanup? How about the Japanese, it’s their garbage.”

In one event, an estimated 3 billion pounds of buoyant debris washed from Japan’s shores. Researchers from the International Pacific Research Institute (IRPC) in Hawaii created animated graphics predicting when the debris will make landfall on the other side of the Pacific. One of the men responsible for making this happen, a hitherto relatively obscure researcher named Nikolai Maximenko found himself inundated by hungry press wanting to know when debris would arrive.

But never mind the fact that the press had barely heard of the IRPC before the tsunami, nor has the public looked at all the other IRPC models depicting 5 oceanic gyres where debris constantly collects and has increased in density over 100 times in the past 40 years.  Never mind that the last best study that estimates how much garbage washes out to sea every year was done in 1975 when world population was a little more than half of what it is now. Forget, too, that plastic production was only a fraction of today’s consumption and that 90% of what floats in the ocean is plastic. Discard, too, that the study only includes maritime inputs (garbage from ships, not land based) and equates to 14 billion pounds.  With all the vectors by which we trash our seas, it seems a good bet that almost 3 billion pounds of garbage leaves land almost everyday.

But tsunami debris is special; special because it was taken by a wave, connected to humans, and not haphazardly littered on the beach, by a river, or in the gutter. In Oregon, where a length of dock washed up on Agate Beach near Newport, disaster tourism is so prevalent that county officials were reluctant to see the dock removed, citing the boost to the local economy from disaster beachcombers. In Port Orchard, Washington, a fishing float that may or may not be tsunami debris is on sale at a local shop for $400. How long until this stuff is on Ebay?

Landing in Japan

This spring I joined an expedition organized by the 5 Gyres Institute and Algalita Marine Research Foundation to sail from Tokyo to Oahu to observe and study the tsunami debris field. The scientific goals of the expedition were to: assess how the computer models generated by IRPC and others reconciled with empirical observation from sea, gather baseline data for plastic density in the understudied western half of the North Pacific Garbage Patch, understand the speed of photo-degradation of plastics in to small pieces in the ocean, and to assess the threat posed by invasive species hitching a ride across the sea. 

 
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