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

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. 

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 11th 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.

Within 12 hours of gaining the open ocean out of Tokyo Bay, bad weather was on us. Thirty knot winds, heavy seas and rain so hard visibility didn’t extend to the front of the ship.  Conversations aboard considered the contingencies; tsunami debris present vs. small steel sailing ship steered in poor visibility. What are the limits of radar? How strong is the hull? To be safe, the watertight bulkhead door to the front of the ship remained closed at all times in case of a hull breach.

The ocean is big. There is no way to impress that fact upon someone who hasn’t crossed one.  Statistics like the ocean covers 70% of the earth’s surface are meaningless to a population that on average ventures fewer than 40 miles from home, daily. 

But when the math of the ocean’s size starts hitting the brain, finding flotsam in any quantity is alarming, especially when spotting garbage is at least a thousand times more common than seeing wildlife.  The chief science officer, Dr. Marcus Eriksen of 5 Gyres, had arranged at-sea interviews with major news organizations about the voyage. Upon ‘finding’ the debris field, a theoretical place in space and time, perceived by much of the public and press to have an appearance of a contiguous mass, was where the major news organizations wanted their stories set. But most of them only wanted stories if we discovered exceptional debris like refrigerator trucks and severed appendages floated by shoes. Ordinary household effects like buckets, detergent bottles, and laundry baskets were ever present in the water, but distinguishing between regular pollution and tsunami pollution was difficult.  

In fact, as part of the larger macro-debris studies while at sea, our crew participated in timed observations of the sea surface which involved two people sitting on the bow of the ship, one watching left, the other, right for an hour.  The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) developed a protocol for the activity where observers record and classify everything that floats past. After gathering 41 hours of data, the expedition’s results found that 98% of marine debris out there is plastic, and was seen every 3.6 minutes traveling at an average of around six knots over 3,500 nautical miles. Every 60 nautical miles we deployed a surface trawl, too, to gather micro-plastic debris present. Each sample, from a swath of ocean 60 centimeters by 25, yielded a handful of photo-degraded plastic confetti. Yikes.

If one considers the average home’s inventory, anywhere in the world, the majority of objects aren’t necessarily of any intrinsic or aesthetic value; they’re just synthetic forms made for utility meant to be discarded after a couple of uses. A water bottle that finds its way to a watershed has the same effect of losing one in a tsunami, scientifically speaking. Positively identifying tsunami debris is easier for the rarer objects in our lives, like spare tires, Harley Davidson’s, wall or flooring material, propane tanks and boats—the things that are rarely, if ever, littered or fall out of an overflowing garbage can.

Such were the things we found that we positively identified as tsunami debris, some 1,500 miles east of Japan—almost at exactly the same day the dock section washed up in Oregon, thousands of miles farther east.  What’s the explanation? Scientifically, different objects travel at different speeds, depending on how much sticks out of the water and is affected by wind.  But to try to develop a simulation that accounts for wind sheer and predicts how two like objects will travel is almost an exercise in futility. The North Pacific Ocean as a mechanism isn’t a very well known scientific story; it’s a variation on a theme.  As Dr. Curtis Ebbesmeyer, author of Flotsametrics, told me in an analogy speaking about how the North Pacific works, “After you sweep your floor, you know where some of the dust bunnies will gather again--like in the corners, but others will form in places you never expected.” This is how the ocean works, he explained.

Discovering Tsunami Debris

“It’s a whale,” shouts someone from the foredeck. I jump out of my bunk, grab my camera and rush to the bow of the ship.  Seeing anything other than garbage at sea is a major event. But as we drew closer on a calm ocean, the object we spotted was not organic. Bobbing in faint swell was the bow of boat, clearly marked with Japanese characters. We took the sails down and prepared to dive.

In the water, the rest of the boat was visible. Swimming 1,500 miles from Japan, in 10,000 feet of water observing an object that was ripped from its mooring haunted me to the core. Underwater, perhaps 50 fish had populated the boat, using it as shelter from predators. One species was a coral dwelling type, not an open ocean fish and it shouldn’t have been there at all. In the water, I could see the rope that was torn from the bow cleat when the wave hit. Where the other two thirds of the ship had gone was anyone’s guess. Only a few barnacles had inhabited the hull and fouling growth was minimal. “It’s likely that this boat was unattended when the tsunami hit,” said Dr. Eriksen, observing the frayed rope, piecing together, forensically what had happened. Both of us took solace in the likelihood that this object wasn’t connected to a human when it was ripped out to sea. Someone had lost a boat, but most likely, not a life. Using the registration number on the boat, broadcast through NHK, a Japanese news agency, we’re still trying to locate the owner.

Other objects we discovered that we positively identified as tsunami debris were a spare tire from a light truck, still inflated, never used. Most likely it had floated from the back of a truck when the wave withdrew. We also found a section of traditional Japanese flooring, called a Tatami mat. The original Tatami mats consist of woven reeds, straw interior and a cloth border. This modern version had Styrofoam added for cushioning or traction. This latter discovery hit the crew hard. This was someone’s home, an artifact that supported the movements of a household and all of us wondered the same thing: was anyone standing there when …?

I have now traveled to four of the five subtropical oceanic gyres or garbage patches as they’re called. I’ve pulled out tampon applicators, buckets, shotgun shells, syringes, lighters, bottle caps, toy soldiers—you name it—if it’s plastic and it floats, it’s out there.  On this trip, we found a bottle cap, possibly from the tsunami that had sea anemones living in it—in the middle of the ocean! But the vast majority of garbage present isn’t there because of a tsunami. It’s there because of small, seemingly insignificant habits by individuals, you and me, that together as a world population have a tsunami’s effect worth of pollution.  

The initial findings of the expedition posit this: the wave of tsunami debris won’t be a single event, it will be a slow steady trickle for years and years. Offshore of North America is a dominant phenomenon called the California Current. This current flows from north to south, keeping most of the ocean born plastic garbage off US beaches. When strong westerly flows occur, the ocean’s deposit is made on our sand, tsunami and otherwise.  But finding a boat 2,500 miles east at the same time a dock washes up on a beach in Oregon means this: no one can really predict where it all is, or when it’s all going to land. Like plastic debris, some tsunami debris will spend years if not decades in the ocean before it’s spit out. 

Back to Oregon

I arrived back to Agate Beach, Oregon, just in time to see the last bits of the Japanese dock being removed from the beach. Charlie Plybon, Oregon Field Manager for the Surfrider Foundation, said that 40,000 cars had visited the parking lot at Agate in one weekend; the usage statistics typical of several weeks. Calls and emails come to him everyday from all over the world, inquiring about tsunami debris asking every kind of tsunami sensationalist question imaginable. As Cylvia Hayes, First Lady of Oregon who is helping to facilitate a tsunami cleanup task force said to me, “The fact that tsunami debris from the tragedy in Japan is now washing up on the shores of Oregon is powerful evidence that our oceans connect us all and we all have a stake in their health.  I think it’s very important to recognize that while the tsunami debris is extraordinary, it is only a fraction of the amount of plastic trash in our oceans. This is a serious problem that deserves serious action.” Indeed it is Cylvia, and I couldn’t agree more, I’ve been there. 

Click here to see a photo slideshow by Stiv Wilson of his journey.


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