West Coast prepares for Japanese tsunami debris
Tracy Loew, USA TODAY
SALEM, Ore. – A large dock that washed ashore in Oregon this week more than a year after it was ripped from Japan's shoreline by a tsunami is adding urgency to preparations for a wave of such debris expected to hit the USA's Pacific Coast in coming months.
"We've got a looming threat. There's great public concern about this," says Phillip Johnson, Oregon Shores Conservation Coalition director. "At this point, we don't know if we're going to have a major problem."
Beach cleanliness is vital to residents in Oregon, the only state whose entire coastline (362 miles) is public. Thousands of people turn out twice a year for beach cleanup events. Others adopt portions of the coastline, cleaning and monitoring it year-round. So it's no surprise that residents are worried about the tsunami debris, Johnson says.
On Wednesday, Oregon confirmed the dock that washed ashore this week was from the tsunami. The dock — 7 feet high, 19 feet wide and 66 feet long — is the first official piece of tsunami debris to reach the state.
A dozen volunteers on Thursday scraped the dock clean of marine organisms and sterilized it with torches to prevent the spread of invasive species, said Chris Havel of the state Department of Parks and Recreation.
Japanese officials estimate that 5 million tons of debris washed into the Pacific Ocean after the March 11, 2011, quake and tsunami, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). About 70% of that sank, leaving about 1.5 million tons floating.
Most of the debris still is north of Hawaii, says Nir Barnea, West Coast regional coordinator for NOAA's Marine Debris Program.
Scientists expect more debris to hit the West Coast in coming months and through 2014. "It will arrive intermittently and not all at one time and place," Barnea says. "It may be difficult to tell what is tsunami-related and what is not. Even floats with Japanese writing are not necessarily from the tsunami."
Although scientists expect much of the floating debris to follow the currents to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an accumulation of millions of tons of small bits of plastic floating in the northern Pacific, tsunami debris that can catch the wind is making its way to North America. In recent weeks, a soccer ball washed up in Alaska and a Harley-Davidson motorcycle in a shipping container reached British Columbia.
Just how the dock happened to turn up in Oregon was probably determined within sight of land in Japan, says Jan Hafner with the University of Hawaii's International Pacific Research Center, which tracks the debris.
That's where the winds, currents and tides are most variable, because of changes in the coastline and the features of the land, even for two objects a few yards apart, he says. Once the dock got into the ocean, it was pushed steadily by the prevailing westerly winds and the North Pacific Current.
In April, a group of volunteer organizations teamed with NOAA and the state to hold 11 public meetings across Oregon to address concerns about tsunami debris. About 400 people attended, says Jamie Doyle, an educator with Oregon Sea Grant.
"A lot of people were concerned about radiation," Doyle says, referring to the nuclear power plant accident in Japan that was triggered by the earthquake and tsunami. "But it's thought to be highly unlikely."
That's because most of the debris was washed out before the radiation release and because radiation would have dissipated by now, Barnea says.
Body parts also are not expected, because they would have decomposed by now.
The most important message, Barnea says: "If you don't know what it is, don't touch it. Don't move it. Report it to local authorities, 911 or the national response center."
A mobile application at marinedebris.engr.uga.edu can help people report debris. It is a partnership of the NOAA Marine Debris Division and the Southeast Atlantic Marine Debris Initiative of the engineering school at the University of Georgia.
In addition to Oregon, other Pacific Coast states are educating residents about tsunami debris cleanup, Barnea says.
•In Alaska, some lighter debris, such as plastic bottles and Styrofoam floats, is showing up. The first volunteer cleanup project in the state took place in Montague Island this month.
•In Washington, authorities have distributed fliers with instructions on how to handle items found on beaches.
•In California, officials say coastal currents may deflect most debris back toward Hawaii. Even so, the state's Coastal Commission has issued guidelines for volunteers helping with tsunami debris removal.
"We'll continue to work on the planning, continue to work with volunteers," Barnea says. "It's a real teamwork of state, federal and local agencies, non-governmental organizations, and the public."
Loew also reports for the Statesman Journal in Salem, Ore. Contributing: John McAuliff, USA TODAY; the Associated Press.
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