Debris from Japanese tsunami headed for Calif. coast

February 11, 2012 12:34:53 AM PST
Huge amounts of debris are bound for the California coastline. All of it, 25 million tons, is coming from Japan -- raked away from the coast by the massive tsunami that hit nearly a year ago.

The tsunami triggered by a magnitude 9.0 earthquake off the coast of Japan tore Japanese life from the shoreline and pulled it into the sea. Everything used in daily life found its way into the Pacific Ocean. Some of it sank, some of it has been retrieved, but most of it is now floating in the Pacific Ocean.

"Debris from Japan, from the tsunami last March, started arriving the end of last September," oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer said.

It is a potential ecological and environmental disaster and poses obstacles for ships navigating the high seas.

Ebbesmeyer with the University of Washington has studied ocean debris for 30 years.

"I would expect that the main mass would start arriving next winter," Ebbesmeyer said.

Ebbesmeyer is relying on people who regularly walk the beach and report what they find.

Beachcomber John Anderson has seen almost everything you can think of along the beach. He can only imagine what's coming next.

"It's not going come all at once, houses and all that, it's going to be scattered debris and stuff coming on the beach," Anderson said.

Pacific Ocean currents spin in two massive gyres near Japan -- the smaller one is carrying debris to the Pacific Northwest. The larger one is home to the Pacific garbage patch, a wasteland of plastic and debris five times the size of Texas. What doesn't get caught there will make its way to California.

Beachcombers near Monterey are on the lookout for tsunami debris that may go there. The program is run by the moss landing marine laboratory. Volunteers look for dead animals and garbage.

"If it floats and it will float for long periods of time it will make it across the Pacific and end up on our shores," Moss Landing Marine Laboratory Interim Director Jim Harvey said.

And potentially in the stomachs of wildlife.

"We suspect that we should start seeing things in the next month or two," Harvey said.

The Environmental Protection Agency is now gearing up for what may be a massive coastal clean-up. EPA Regional Director Jared Blumenfeld is keeping a close eye on the California coast.

"A third of the world is covered by the Pacific Ocean, so even though it could be millions of tons of debris it's very difficult to find where it is," Blumenfeld said.

Last month, the Coast Guard began looking for debris near Midway Island in the north pacific. They found nothing on the flight, but it highlights how difficult it will be to find even huge fields of debris from the air.

A Russian research boat near the Hawaiian Islands recently came across some debris. It is a first look at the size and scope of things to come.

"We don't know how much is floating, we don't know how much is buoyant, how much is under the surface, how much has broken up, but we do know there is a huge amount of it and stuff that you don't normally find cars, houses, telephone booths, I mean you name it," Blumenfeld said.

Two oceanographers separated by thousands of miles are trying figure out where and when the debris will hit.

"So that we can have the funds to support the clean-up effort," Luca Centurioni of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography said.

"These light objects, they must be treated as early warning that something more dangerous is coming next," Nikolai Maximenko of the University of Hawaii said.

The U.S. is working with the government of Japan to establish a way to return items that may have sentimental value to the Japanese. That includes the possibility of human remains that may wash up as well. The EPA has established a number to call to report debris that is suspected to have come from Japan. If you find debris you believe may have come from the Japanese tsunami, call the EPA's debris hotline at 1-800- 300-2193.

Written and produced by Ken Miguel


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