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Scientists observe 'tragic experiment' of tsunami debris

Material swept across the Pacific after Japan's 2011 earthquake offers an opportunity to track items originating from a single point at a single time. Debris has begun washing up on the West Coast.

May 26, 2012|By Tony Barboza, Los Angeles Times
  • The unmanned Japanese fishing vessel Ryou-un Maru drifts in the Gulf of Alaska after breaking loose in the tsunami following Japan's 2011 earthquake. It later was sunk by the U.S. Coast Guard.
The unmanned Japanese fishing vessel Ryou-un Maru drifts in the Gulf of… (U.S. Coast Guard )

Jeff Larson has seen just about everything wash up on the shores of Santa Cruz: bottles, toys, shotgun shells, busted surfboards and fishing floats that looked like they had bobbed across the Pacific.

When surging water driven by the magnitude 9.0 earthquake in Japan tore apart his city's harbor, he was there to scoop up the splintered docks and broken boats that were heaved onto the sand.

Now, more than a year after the catastrophe in Japan, Larson and fellow beachcombers up and down the West Coast are awaiting the flotsam that was set on a eastward course by the destructive surge of water.

GRAPHIC: Japan tsunami debris adrift

Fishing floats, soccer balls, fuel tanks and crewless fishing vessels set adrift by the tsunami and pushed thousands of miles across the ocean by currents and winds are already arriving on American shores.

But this is not just driftwood. These fragments of people's lives are floating reminders of a great tragedy: The March 11, 2011, earthquake that unleashed tsunami waves over 100 feet high killed more than 16,000 people, obliterated coastal communities and swept millions of tons of material out to sea.

So as scientists track the debris, the government prepares for its arrival and expeditions sail to the middle of the ocean to meet it, Larson will patrol his adopted beach with a five-gallon bucket and a grab stick, the tsunami on his mind.

"I'll be looking for any signs of foreign material," the volunteer with beach cleanup group Save Our Shores said, "and reporting it to anyone who cares."

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From Alaska to Northern California, beachcombers are reporting a growing influx of aerosol cans, fishing floats and plastic fuel cans swept from Japan.

There was a soccer ball with Japanese writing discovered in March on a remote Alaskan island and traced to a 16-year-old boy in Japan. In early April, the U.S. Coast Guard had to use explosives to sink a so-called ghost ship — a 164-foot Japanese fishing vessel drifting through the Gulf of Alaska.

A corroded Harley-Davidson motorcycle packed in a container washed up on a Canadian island. The owner, located through the bike's license plate number, had lost three family members in the tsunami, Japanese media reported. Although currents along the California coast may deflect much of the debris back toward Hawaii, environmental groups as far south as San Diego are monitoring their shores just in case.

In all, more than 200 bottles, cans, buoys and floats have been reported to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. None of the debris is considered radioactive since it was dragged to sea before the nuclear disaster.

But the agency has verified just a few traceable items as tsunami debris. Much of the rest, officials say, is items so commonplace they can't be distinguished from the flotsam that makes landfall every day.

"We have debris washing up on the shore all the time from Japan, China and other places and they probably have ours," says Nir Barnea, West Coast coordinator of NOAA's marine debris program.

Others say the U.S. government is downplaying the size and significance of the approaching debris.

"Unfortunately 99.999% of debris doesn't come with a label," retired Seattle oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer said. "Lawyers want something with a street number or a boat name on it. Flotsam isn't like that, so basically you can't positively track anything back to Japan."

Ebbesmeyer, who compiles reports from West Coast beachcombers on his blog, has tallied at least 500 foam and plastic floats and fuel cans that have shown up from Japan since October. He said that's roughly 167 times the normal rate.

"They all started arriving at once from Kodiak, Alaska, to Northern California, and that's very indicative of a disaster," he said.

Ebbesmeyer expects the amount of debris to increase dramatically this fall with the arrival of floating refrigerators, car wheels, bath toys and shoes — items with a remarkable ability to float long distances.

With that possibility in mind, the state of Washington has distributed fliers with instructions on how to handle everything from canisters of insecticide to personal possessions.

"It is extremely unlikely any human remains from the tsunami will reach the United States," the flier reads. But if they do, it advises, call 911.

With debris making landfall sooner than predicted, U.S. lawmakers have started to question whether the government is truly prepared.

"Many people said we wouldn't see any of this impact until 2013 or 2014, and now ships and motorcycles and this various debris is showing up and people want answers," Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) said at a hearing this month.

A top NOAA official had few answers to senators' pointed questions about how much flotsam will wash up and where, how hazardous it will be and how it will be cleaned up. But there is no reason to be overly alarmed, the administrator said, because there is no evidence of any huge sheets of debris headed ashore.

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