As Japan’s Tsunami Debris Arrives, Can U.S. West Coast Handle It?

 

In the coming weeks and months, a weather phenomenon known as the “fall transition” will wash the artifacts of a national tragedy onto West Coast beaches.

The fall transition happens when the Northern Hemisphere storm track that governs prevailing winds sends those gusts in a completely different direction—from south to north and from offshore to inland—along with stuff that gets pushed around in the water. Right now, among the stuff that’s floating offshore is a whirlpool of junk known as the Pacific Gyre, which is estimated to hold 5 million pounds of bashed-in houses, fishing boats, docks, and dead bodies from the March 11, 2011, tsunami in Japan. The more buoyant relics of this disaster have been bobbing along for 18 months, with a few notable exceptions that have left state and federal officials scrambling to respond.

When a massive dock thunked its way onto Oregon’s Agate Beach this summer, pandemonium ensued. Not only was the thing huge—at 66 feet long, 8 feet tall, and 165 tons—it was covered in gnarly invasive species, and had script in Kanji on a small plaque at the bottom. After a little sleuthing by Portland’s Japanese consulate, everyone’s worst fears were confirmed: the first piece of debris from last spring’s disaster had finally hit the continental U.S., much sooner than anyone had expected.

Overnight, the “tsunami dock” became an instant tourist attraction and a headache for state parks officials, who manage the beach. They dispatched rangers in mostly futile attempts to keep rambunctious youngsters from turning the thing into a jungle gym, and they puzzled back in Salem about how to get rid of it, and how to pay for that.

Two months and $85,000 later, the dock was gone. A contractor cut it into pieces using a Rube Goldberg-looking contraption whereby a diamond saw looped around and under it and sliced. This was a huge disappointment to the fans who painted a mural on the side. But it was the only option, insisted those that run the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department. You can’t just leave stuff on the beach, they said. It sets a terrible precedent.
Tsunami Debris

Tsunami debris collected along the coast of Washington state June 18, 2012 (Rachel La Corte / AP Photos)

Over the next few months, Oregon and the rest of the West Coast will find that argument bolstered—by a need to keep the landing strip clear. The dock did indeed arrive early, months ahead of schedule, likely shoved faster than the currents would otherwise have carried it thanks to “windage,” an uncannily appropriate term used to describe how much of a thing is sticking out of the water, how much it creates a kind of accidental sail. The dock actually sailed across the Pacific, in other words, as much as it did float.

Which is to say there’s much more tsunami debris—with less windage—still out there. Of the 5 million tons of debris estimated to have washed into the ocean after the March 2011 quake, Japanese officials say 70 percent of it sank. The rest floated. There are two more docks, just like the one the state just spent four years of college tuition to remove. There are plastic bottles, fishing floats, lightbulbs, giant chunks of Styrofoam, small appliances, mannequin parts, buoys, even entire fishing vessels. A few weeks after the dock showed up in Oregon, a 20-foot fiberglass boat covered in pelagic gooseneck barnacles up to 3 feet long washed up at Cape Disappointment State Park, in Washington. The boat was also traced to the tsunami, Curt Hart of the Washington Department of Ecology told The Daily Beast. After determining that the owner “didn’t want it back,” the state checked it for radiation (all clear), blasted it clean and tossed it in a landfill.

Marine debris is not a new phenomenon. Litterbugs and careless ship crewmen and leaking landfills have conspired for decades to clog the world’s oceans with all sorts of junk, creating loosely affiliated “garbage patches” in certain gyres with clockwise, rotating currents that have a way of concentrating marine debris. That problem is the raison d’être for The 5 Gyres Institute, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit whose founders have spent much of the past three years sailing the world’s oceans with a “Manta Trawl” attached to the side of the boat, scooping up samples of trash so as to generate estimates of how much more is out there.

It’s frustrating for 5 Gyres’ policy coordinator Stiv Wilson to be reminded that people don’t seem to know how rubbish-laden the planet’s waterways actually are. “All these images, such stunning images when the tsunami first happened, the same pictures exist of what a river in Jakarta looks like every day,” he told The Daily Beast.

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