portfolio: Sifting the Debris – Japanese Tsunami Connects Us All

Here’s a little segment we put together for the Vancouver chapter of the Surfrider Foundation. It’s an educationally aimed info piece speaking to the reaching effects of last year’s devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Check out the full post at Surfrider Vancouver.

Sifting the Debris – Japanese Tsunami Connects Us All

It’s been a long year of recovery and rebuilding in Japan. The earthquake last March was one of the biggest on record; triggering the massive north coast tsunami, and causing catastrophic damage and loss of life across the island.

It’s impossible to grasp the human suffering and the proportions of such disaster. More than 16,000 lives were lost and 200,000 buildings damaged; entire towns were flattened and villages washed away.

Nearly 10,000 kilometres away, we are not at all removed. Local news stories have just started drawing attention to the tsunami wreckage making its way across the ocean. Pop bottles, soccer balls, motorcycles, fishing floats, and even a 70 foot long dock, are just part of the debris field that is setting upon our shores.

These derelict pieces of debris are a humbling indication of the immense devastation that occurred. But this is also a significant demonstration of how connected we all are. Even when separated by vast bodies of water, we are all impacted by what happens on this little planet.

The Great Tohoku Earthquake

On March 11, 2011, the 9.0 magnitude megathrust earthquake struck the eastern shores of the Oshika Peninsula, in Japan. Named the Great Tohoku Earthquake for the region near where it touched down, this was the strongest earthquake ever to hit Japan, and one of the top five on record globally.

The quake triggered the massive tsunami that pummeled the northeastern coast of the island. With waves nearly 10 metres high, everything from cars and tractors, to household items, buildings, boats, and even docks floated away with the surging waters. An estimated 5 million tonnes of debris launched into the ocean.

Estimates say, 70 per cent of the debris sank immediately off the coast, but the remaining 1.8 million tonnes floated out into the Pacific. First reports described the floating wreckage as a large consolidated debris field several thousand kilometres long.

Into the Currents of the North Pacific Gyre

In the Pacific Ocean, the most powerful ocean current is the Kuroshio Current; it’s the Pacific’s equivalent of the Atlantic’s high-powered Gulf Stream. Over the last 15 months winds and smaller currents scattered the original debris field, but the Kuroshio Current steadily worked to push the wreckage out to sea.

Just part of the current system that makes up the revolving North Pacific Gyre, the Kuroshio Current flows northeast from Japan, curving across to the waters north of the Hawaiian Archipelago. From here the North Pacific Current picks up and flows onwards east, sweeping directly towards the central coastline of Canada and the United States.

With the variety of materials afloat and the varying weather patterns at sea, timing is hard to predict, but researchers say the recent debris sightings are just the beginning. The majority of the debris is moving slower; California, Washington, Oregon, BC, and Alaska will start seeing the bulk of the material arrive early in 2013. How much of the debris will actually make it to shore is unknown.

A series of smaller currents, and the southwesterly California Current will grab what doesn’t hit land and turn it back west towards Hawaii, making landfall on the island chain somewhere between 2014 and 2016.

And what doesn’t arrive ashore is expected to join the cyclical system of smaller currents that make up the central North Pacific Gyre. Home to Great Pacific Garbage Patch, this ocean area is well-known for its circular self-feeding currents that have already formed a great convergence zone for marine litter. The final stop for much of the tsunami debris is likely this garbage vortex — potentially adding to an already overwhelming concentration of broken down plastics and materials.

For more information from a few groups studying and tracking the tsunami debris check out these informative links:

Risks and Effects

Officials in BC say significant environmental or public health risks are unlikely. Risk of radioactive contamination is also low.

With such a tremendous amount of material entering one of the largest ecosystems on earth, there are obvious long-term impacts to consider.

Of main concern is the increased concentration of plastic in the waters and the effect on marine life. Many areas, like the North Pacific Garbage Patch, have become highly toxic zones for fish and sea life. More plastics and more waste means even greater risks of ingestion and poisoning for fish, and that of course spreads across the food chain.

Larger pieces of debris also threaten marine life in very basic ways: impacting navigation, ensnaring animals, and physically damaging reefs and marine habitats.

Researchers are looking into ways for large-scale ocean cleanups, but this is reported as unlikely.

For us land-goers, the issue becomes a matter of protecting our congested beaches and controlling the damage to coastal ecosystems from the influx of litter. Coastal communities are just beginning to recognize the alarming situation and potential surprise consequences. The BC coastline is notably isolated and hard-to-access, making cleanup and protection nearly impossible in some areas.

Getting It Together

While the BC government has set up the Tsunami Debris Coordinating Committee to work with local governments, First Nations and other stakeholders all along the coast, it’s evident that the big push is going to have to come from motivated citizens and beach lovers.

Here’s a little rundown of information about what what’s happening, what people are doing, and how to get involved. Of course, stayed tuned to Surfrider Vancouver, who will definitely be connected to local information and initiatives.

In British Columbia:

Great Info Resources from the Surfrider Foundation and beyond: