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One year later: Japan tsunami aftermath and debris

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By: Nancy Wallace, Director, NOAA Marine Debris Program

On March 11, one year will have passed since Japan suffered one of the worst natural disasters and human tragedies in its history. The 9.0 earthquake and the tsunami that followed claimed nearly 16,000 lives, injured 6,000 more, and damaged or destroyed countless buildings.

The Japanese people are remarkably resilient. The strides they’ve made in one year to rebuild their nation are a testament to their strength and ability to band together in a crisis, even though the sense of loss is not gone.

Here at NOAA, we’re preparing for a different kind of aftermath from the disaster: the possibility that debris washed into the sea by the tsunami could arrive on shores in Alaska, Hawaii, the West Coast, and Canada over the next few years.  While our situation pales in comparison to what the Japanese experienced, NOAA and its partners have taken action to assess and prepare for any impacts.

Facts and misconceptions

Public buzz about this debris has grown stronger over the past few months, and people are understandably concerned. Where will it go? How much is it, and what is it? What will happen to the beaches, and who is going to clean it up?

Here is what we know: It will not arrive in a large “mass,” clumped together in a 25-million ton flotilla, as shock-value news headlines have indicated in recent weeks.  That image is dramatic, but unrealistic. At this point, there is no scientific estimate of how much debris the tsunami washed into the sea or how much is still floating.

We also know it is highly unlikely any debris is radioactive, and – while gut-wrenching to imagine – there is almost zero chance human remains from Japan will arrive with it. Our coasts are national treasures, and the public should continue to visit them and help us keep them clean. Of course, we urge caution and awareness, especially for boaters, but there’s no reason to fear the shore.

What to expect

So where is the debris? From NOAA’s experiences with other natural disasters, we believe quite a bit of debris sank off Japan’s coast. Satellites that observed “debris fields” in the days following the tsunami lost sight of those fields after one month. What debris did float away has dispersed far across the Pacific Ocean, to the point where our partners in planes and vessels are reporting very few sightings.

To predict where the debris will go, NOAA and independent researchers modeled its path using historical ocean conditions.  Those models gave us a rough idea of when and where we can reasonably expect debris items (that make it across the Pacific) to show up. It is likely that beachgoers on the West Coast and Alaska will start noticing a gradual increase in marine debris items near-shore or on the beaches in 2013. Those on the main Hawaiian Islands might start noticing an increase closer to 2014.**

These are just predictions and should not be taken as the end-all of what will actually happen.

Consider this: the Pacific Ocean is enormous – it covers one-third of the Earth’s surface – and its currents and winds are constantly changing. Any debris still floating in the water has been at the mercy of one year of storms and weathering. Items will sink, break up, and scatter far across the ocean, or they could get pulled into existing garbage patches.  Models do not take this into account, and we have no way of knowing how an individual piece of debris will behave.

While it’s impossible to tell exactly what will make it across, it will likely be items that float easily: buoys and other fishing gear, plastics and cans, barrels and drums, lumber, or even appliances. Boats are also a possibility. These items can impact navigation, ensnare animals, damage precious reefs, and litter the beaches.

Dealing with debris

Given all the uncertainties, the NOAA Marine Debris Program and our federal, state, and local partners have been preparing contingency plans for the past several months to protect our natural resources. These plans will help guide local responses in case we need to remove large, hazardous, or unmanageable items.

We also reached out to the Japanese government, which has done a considerable amount of work to track this debris, even while dealing with incredible tragedy and nation rebuilding. If items from the tsunami do wash ashore, we ask people to remember that they represent loss.  Any pieces that can be clearly traced back to an owner should be reported to a Japan consulate, so that they might be returned.

Check out what else the NOAA Marine Debris Program has been doing to monitor and prepare for the debris.

In recent weeks, beachcombers have caught sight of buoys and other items washing up on the West Coast, Canada, and Alaskan shores. Although models suggest most of the debris won’t show up until sometime next year, NOAA is not ruling anything out. It is possible for highly buoyant debris to catch wind and arrive ahead of expectations.

The truth is, what now floats our way is part of a larger problem.  Marine debris, even buoys and other debris from Asia, persists in many of our coastal communities every day, and that’s why it’s hard to tell if any one item came directly from the tsunami.

Help wanted: beachcombers and monitors

No matter where it comes from, we should all take comfort in this: debris is – for the most part – removable and preventable.

If you see small debris, pick it up and examine it.  Items that have no identifying markers should be disposed of properly, but if it belongs to someone, alert a local authority. You can also report large volumes of debris or items that clearly came from Japan to DisasterDebris@noaa.gov. There are other easy ways to help: join a beach cleanup or recommit yourself to recycling.

Some items should be left to the authorities. We urge beach cleaners not to touch anything that appears hazardous or too large to move safely. Report it, and it will likely be dealt with by local emergency responders.

This is a challenging situation, to be sure, and it will take everyone working together to address it. But if we remain aware and take action, we can reduce the impact marine debris has on our environment now and in the future – whatever it may bring.

NOAA needs beach monitors to help us survey the shores for baseline marine debris data. That way, if more debris starts appearing, we’ll know the leading edge of the tsunami debris may have arrived. You can request NOAA Marine Debris Program protocols at MD.monitoring@noaa.gov.

**Editor’s note: Model results may have changed. For the latest information, visit http://www.marinedebris.noaa.gov/tsunamidebris

Author: NOAA Marine Debris Program

The NOAA Marine Debris Program envisions the global ocean and its coasts, users, and inhabitants free from the impacts of marine debris. Our mission is to investigate and solve the problems that stem from marine debris, in order to protect and conserve our nation's marine environment, natural resources, industries, economy, and people.

16 thoughts on “One year later: Japan tsunami aftermath and debris

  1. I appreciated your kindness on behalf of all suffered from the disaster. We, Japanese lost too much by Tsunami. We would be thankful if you kept anything obviously belonged to us.

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  6. if oil tankers can move approximately 2,000,000,000 metric tons of oil every year humans should be able to clean up their own mess…..i’m just sayin!;p

  7. I live in the UK and have just read an article in Scientific American about the debris from the Japanese tsunami. I was shocked to read that around 40% of the ocean surface is covered with marine debris, although I see rubbish strewn on beaches whenever I visit them, so I shouldn’t have been as surprised as I was. I would like to take part in cleaning up beaches in my own country, and I’ll be searching online for how to get involved in these.

    But I was also wondering if there are plans for nations to come together and set-up programs to deal with the rubbish that is still at sea? Could all nations operate ships around their own coastlines and pick up rubbish and then have it recycled if possible? It would be much preferable to pick up large items before they get a chance to be broken down (assuming they haven’t sunk below the surface).

    • John: We don’t know of plans to clean up garbage at sea – unfortunately it just doesn’t make sense in some cases. It would be a tremendous challenge that certainly is not cost effective. The United Nations Environment Programme and the NOAA Marine Debris Program recently released the Honolulu Strategy, a global framework for reducing the impacts from marine debris. It is our hope that stakeholders – governments and organizations – will use this framework to reduce debris in our oceans. http://5imdc.org/honolulustrategy/

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  10. Pingback: West Coast leaders announce joint response to Japanese tsunami debris - Guide to Kingman

  11. I’m truly enjoying the design and layout of your blog. It’s a very easy on the eyes
    which makes it much more pleasant for me to come here and visit
    more often. Did you hire out a designer to create your theme?
    Outstanding work!

  12. Hi Nancy,
    John Vonderlin here. Kudos for the most accurate article I’ve seen on this subject. I think you and your readers would like to view my online Flickr account detailing my almost ten years of collecting benthic marine debris regurgitated by the peculiar phenomena of Neptune’s Vomitorium. (more then 50K items documented. sorted and stored) While I have a large flotsam collection too, gathered from my methodical cleanups of our remote or inaccessible beaches, and have been part of Dr. Ebbesmeyers’ network of flotsamists for years, my passion is the hidden world of the benthos. Those worlds often intersect in that much flotsam only floats because of trapped air. The process of waterlogging (poorly understood and researched) and breakage on our rocky coasts often transforms flotsam into sinksam (the much friendlier and sensible word to describe flotsam and jetsam’s sub-surface sibling) One small section of my collections is composed of former flotsam, its colonization indicating a Gyre origin, that subsequent to its sinking is colonized by life that is typical of the colonized local sinksam, of which I have a large collection. I believe these two collections, as well as a number of my others are unique, and provide an unparalleled porthole view into a poorly researched and understood environment. Curious? If so I’ll send links for a quick overview of the resources I’d like to freely share with your organization or anyone else working on protecting our oceans. Keep up your great work. Enjoy. John

  13. Pingback: Where Are We Now? Tsunami Debris Three Years Later | NOAA's Marine Debris Blog

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