Radioactive or Not, Tsunami Debris Could Seriously Impact US’s, Canada’s West Coasts

In the age of constant crisis coverage, it is easy to forget that disasters don't just end once the cameras move on. On the contrary, they morph into new situations, sometimes improved, but often more complex and severe. In the case of Japan's earthquake-tsunami-nuclear catastrophe, part of that tripartite disaster floated out to sea as debris where it has been drifting for months to destinations unknown.

According to Japan's Ministry of Environment's Waste Management Division, the 9.0 magnitude temblor and tsunami generated some 25 million tons of debris in total, literally sucking the lives of thousands of people and their belongings out to sea. Since last March, the remains of destroyed buildings, vehicles, broken furniture, fishing boats, nets and miscellaneous flotsam has been adrift in the north Pacific vastness. But how much was pulled into the ocean and where it will end up, no one can really say for sure.

Scientists and experts in Canada and the United States and, in particular, the Hawaiian islands, recognizing the potential for a fourth leg to Japan's triple disaster, are trying to forecast a possible debris path as they prepare for what could be headed their way.

One scientist closely monitoring the situation is Dr. Nikolai Maximenko, a senior researcher at the University of Hawaii's International Pacific Research Center in Honolulu. Speaking at a conference on the Hawaiian island of Kauai in December, Maximenko said that one-third to one-quarter of the total debris may have been pulled out to sea by the tsunami. But what first appeared as dense, yellow floating masses of broken lumber was quickly overshadowed by a more immediate human and environmental disaster unfolding on land.

Maximenko and other scientists in Hawaii are using diagnostic computer models in an attempt to accurately predict the likely path of debris. In June 2011, sailors traveling between Yokohama and Alaska sighted suspected tsunami-generated detritus. They described navigating two days across a field of “unusual debris,” including they said looked like “file cabinets, lumber, freezer chests and large pieces of Styrofoam.”

In another significant sighting last September, the Russian sailing ship STS Pallada reported passing through debris some 400 miles west of Midway atoll while on its way from Hawaii to the Vladivostok. The Russian crew spotted an unoccupied Japanese fishing boat (later confirmed to be registered in Fukushima Prefecture) as well as televisions, bottles, boots, wash basins and doors.

Coming to a Beach Near You

Citing a SCUD (Surface Currents from Diagnostic) model, Maximenko explains how the best available forecasts suggest debris is likely to first reach the mostly uninhabited, remote, northwestern Hawaiian islands before moving east toward the west coast of Canada and the United States and then circling back in the direction of the main Hawaiian islands. Models forecast debris could enter Hawaiian waters as early as this winter, continuing through at least 2015.

Late last year, a UK tabloid ran the headline, “Japanese tsunami debris washes up on US West Coast nine months after disaster (and there's 100 MILLION more tons on its way).” Eye-catching to be sure, but experts caution that it's impossible to know how much material remains afloat, what path it will take and where or when it will appear.

Maximenko's own assessment of the potential crisis is blunt: “We are not prepared for this event, but we have a unique opportunity to understand and to protect.” He says that now is the time to form partnerships among organizations and individuals to plan for possible impacts and monitor Pacific waters and coastlines.

The Hawaiian islands, reliant on tourism as a major part of its economy, have seen an overall decline in the number of Japanese tourists dating back to at least 9/11, but still enjoy the economic benefit of Japanese (and now, increasingly, Korean and Chinese) tourist arrivals. The notion that some of Hawaii's beautiful, sandy beaches could be hit with an influx of tsunami debris is enough to make tourist industry officials turn ashen. To suggest that the debris could possibly be contaminated from the Fukushima nuclear plants is the stuff of a real-life sci-fi horror story.

Radioactive? Probably Not

The good news is that scientists state with a high degree of certainty that any tsunami debris is very likely not radioactive. Quite simply, the timing was off, according to Dr. Henrieta Dulaiova, a radiochemist and assistant professor at the University of Hawaii's Department of Geology and Geophysics. The overwhelming majority of tsunami ruins were pulled out to sea at least 24 hours before the first reports of radiation leaks from the Fukushima plants. By the time the worst radiation leaks occurred, that debris was far from the contamination zone.

Dulaiova has studied multiple water samples taken from tsunami debris fields, which she says show “very little” radioactivity. “The debris didn't have a chance to soak in highly radioactive water,” Dulaiova says. “I suspect there is very little radioactivity, if any.”

At the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Marine Debris Program office in Honolulu, Carey Morishige, the Pacific islands regional coordinator, is working with partners within and outside of NOAA to better understand the quantities, types and location of tsunami debris using satellite data, reported sightings at sea and numeric models based on historic weather and ocean patterns.

She explains that as NOAA and its numerous partners obtain more information on marine debris sightings, it will hopefully be able to better predict possible flow patterns.

How Much Debris, Where and When?

Morishige notes that prediction models don't take degradation into account and cautions that it is impossible to know how much debris has sunk and how much remains afloat. She says NOAA does not expect Pacific coastlines to be deluged with large items like boats, cars or refrigerators, but is nonetheless planning to respond to a potential increase in unusual debris.

Early forecast models have predicted tsunami debris wouldn't reach the US West Coast until 2013 but, as NPR and others have reported, people from Alaska to Oregon are already claiming to have found objects they suspect are from the Japanese disaster. Morishige says that it's possible, but unlikely, the debris is from the tsunami.

“It's really hard to fingerprint a marine debris item and identify its source with any kind of accuracy,” she says, adding that debris doesn't simply travel in a straight line and is subject to highly variable ocean and wind conditions.

Not an Emergency … So Far

According to the most current research, no tsunami debris has yet to reach the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, a nearly 140,000 square km protected marine wilderness dotted by reefs, shoals and atolls. The remote region of the northwestern Hawaiian islands, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is recognized for its high biodiversity and is home to 14 million sea birds, 7,000 marine species, turtles, seabirds, fish, invertebrates, coral, plankton and endemic terrestrial plant life.

The arrival of tsunami wreckage there would only add to the already serious problem of “ordinary” marine debris, which is generated even under normal conditions, already polluting this otherwise near-pristine wilderness. With access difficult and resources limited, responding to something large like fishing vessels washing up on reefs or atolls would be extremely difficult.

A best-case scenario, Morishige suggests, would be to look back in five years' time to see that worst fears were not realized and all the preparation served as a good exercise to establish future response plans. Something like this, Morishige adds, has never happened before. “There is no model to follow – we are writing the roadmap as we go.”

Prevention Not Dilution

Even without last year's tsunami, marine debris is an everyday problem not limited to the Pacific. “It didn't start with the Japan tsunami,” Morishige says, “It's everyone's problem, no matter how land-locked you may be. There are always routes and ways for trash to get to the ocean.”

The question of what will become of the tsunami debris points to the larger question of what happens to all the daily rubbish we produce – plastic shopping bags, toys, tires, disposable lighters, and larger objects that frequently end up in or near the water – rivers, beaches, the sea and even accumulating in the fish we eat. This should not be a problem “out of sight, out of mind.” The greatest solution to marine debris, Morishige says, is not dilution; it's prevention.

Plastics didn't begin floating in the world's oceans until only the last century, and it wasn't until last March 11 that we saw how one enormous tsunami could suck this much man-made material out to sea in a single oceanic convulsion.

Even for those living far from a coastline, all too often our refuse finds its way into the sea carried by wind, flowing water, or other means. That waste, once it ends up in the ocean, floats and drifts or sinks.

Eventually, wind, waves and the sun break down debris into smaller and smaller pieces, but it never entirely disappears. Instead, it works its way into the food chain as tiny bits of glass, metal, fiber or petroleum-based nonorganic materials, swallowed by the ocean's birds and fish until it is, perhaps, one day eaten by unsuspecting diners in far away lands.

The larger problem of marine debris, whether resulting from a tsunami or not, is perhaps best illustrated by the case of “Shed Bird,” a Laysan albatross which died as a result of ingesting a large amount of plastic junk in the ocean. Two professional photographers, who had been interacting with the bird before its death on Hawaii's Kure Atoll, famously photographed the contents of Shed Bird's stomach to highlight the impact our garbage has on the ocean and its wildlife.

There is a false notion that the ocean is like an enormous sponge which, given enough time, can absorb any amount of human debris.

But it isn't and it won't.

Suspected tsunami debris sightings on land or at sea can be reported to [email protected]