Tsunami debris still washing ashore

2 years later, debris from the Japan tsunami still a problem

March 11, 2013

Tsunami debris continues to wash ashore two years after a deadly tsunami swept ashore in Japan, killing more than 15,000 people.

Solemn reminders of the tsunami are still washing ashore in Hawaii and along the Pacific coast of North America: a piece of a bottle cap, a corner of a mild crate, or half a toothbrush.

“It’s disheartening to come out here and see all this marine debris in an area that’s otherwise so remote, debris that’s washing up from other countries,” said Megan Lamson, debris project coordinator for the Hawaii Wildlife Fund. Hawaii’s Kamillo Beach is part of the devastating legacy of the March 2011 Japan tsunami. The wildlife fund organizes beach cleanups along Hawaii’s shorelines and struggles to keep up with the marine debris, made up primarily of plastic.

Hawaii’s location in the center of the Pacific Ocean means that much of the debris swirls from Asia to the continental United States through the islands.

Nancy Wallace, the director of the marine debris program at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), said “This has been a very unprecedented event.” The agency has been tracking the debris, and the process has given scientists a better understanding of how debris travels, Wallace told LiveScience, but no one knows how much more is yet to come ashore.

NOAA has confirmed 21 pieces of debris from the Japan tsunami on U.S. shores. The most recent piece, confirmed by the Consulate of Japan, was a large, yellow buoy found off the Hawaiian Island of Kauai. According to Japan, 1.5 million tons of tsunami debris floated away.

Other confirmed items have washed up in Washington State and Oregon, including two floating docks. The docks harbored massive amounts of marine life and required decontamination to prevent invasive species from establishing themselves on the U.S. coastline.

Styrofoam and other housing materials have been showing up in bulk in Alaska and Hawaii, said Nicholas Mallos, an ocean debris specialist at the non-profit Ocean Conservancy. “Styrofoam has shown up in some places in quantities 30 times historical abundances.” Mallos told LiveScience.

“We don’t really know the full impact of this type of debris. It adds to an existing problem that we have across the world,” said NOAA Pacific Islands Regional Coordinator Carey Morishige. “ “But it is quite eerie to see an item you think may have come from Japan, someone’s home, to sit on a beach thousands of miles away. It brings home the fact beyond the marine debris issue, this is first and foremost a human tragedy.” It should serve as a reminder, Morishige said, that “the land and the oceans are incredibly connected.”

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