Coastal communities must plan for tsunami debris

May 23, 2012 

Is there or isn’t there about a million-and-a-half metric tons of Japanese debris from the March 2011 earthquake and subsequent tsunami headed for Washington state beaches?

No seems to know for sure. But Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., was right to ask the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to step up its tracking of tsunami debris so coastal communities can plan for whatever threat might exist.

It is known that when the 9.0 quake launched a 30-foot wave that claimed more than 15,000 lives and damaged more than 100,000 buildings on Japan’s eastern coastline, it sent between 20 million and 25 million tons of debris adrift in the Pacific.

Most of the houses, refrigerators and cars sank not far from shore, but it is generally accepted that a million to 1.5 million metric tons has dispersed over 5,000 miles of open ocean, and it is all headed our way.

Scientists disagree over when and how much of the debris will wash up on the shores of Alaska, British Columbia, Washington, Oregon and California, but few dispute that it is coming.

Most of the debris will probably get caught up in the so-called Great Garbage Patch, an area of swirling ocean currents like a backeddy, hundreds of miles north of the Hawaiian Islands.

Retired oceanographer, Curtis Ebbesmeyer, who spoke in Olympia last month, believes the first wave of debris already came ashore last fall. Ebbesmeyer publishes the Beachcomber Alert Newsletter and blog for a network of 10,000 serious beachcombers.

His sources have logged 400 documented Styrofoam buoys marked with Japanese characters naming oyster companies that were devasted in the tsunami.

The Canadian television network CTV began reporting last December that bottles, cans and lumber from the tsunami had begun washing up on British Columbia beaches, more than a year earlier than had been predicted. Recently, a shipping container floated ashore carrying a rusted motorcycle with Japanese license plates.

Ebbesmeyer told his Olympia audience that large objects can travel faster than currents if they are tall enough to catch winds, like a sailboat. In that case, he said, they can cover more than 22 miles per day. A smaller object on the surface might cover six to seven miles.

Regardless of who is right or wrong about the amount of debris and whether it will hit land in a mass or dribble in over the next several years, coastal communities should have a plan.

The mayor of Tofino, a small town on Vancouver Island’s west coast, got it right. He said, “We will treat the whole thing with respect because everything that has come ashore has dealt with a significant human tragedy.”

Ebbesmeyer echoed that statement. Pieces of debris might include family photos or heirlooms, which may be the only remnants of a home or a loved one. He called for a national plan to collect and catalog these precious items for eventual return to Japanese authorities.

Sen. Cantwell is focusing on the threat to coastal economies, as she should. There are 165,000 jobs and $10.8 billion in economic activity from commercial and sport fishing to the shellfish industry. None of the material is suspected to be radioactive because the nuclear power plants destroyed didn’t start leaking until after the tsunami waters had swept back offshore, taking the debris miles away.

As important as the West Coast of the U.S. and Canada is to both nations’ economy, someone ought to be coordinating a cleanup and recovery effort.

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