About that sea of tsunami trash headed our way…

The probable propagation of the plume of marine debris from 11 Mar 2011 tsunami in Japan in the model of surface currents. (Source: Ocean Recovery Alliance)

Last year’s giant earthquake in Japan and the resulting tsunami got world-wide attention at the time but, except for continuing concerns about the damaged nuclear power stations, it has mostly faded from the public’s awareness. However, that hasn’t stopped the millions of tons of debris that was swept out into the Pacific Ocean from continuing its wind- and current-driven course toward our shores. Some of it may have sunk, but much of the debris is still afloat and expected to begin arriving on beaches in the Northwestern Hawai’ian Islands as early as this winter. There have been some early arrivals in Alaska and along the Washington coast already.

Researchers from the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology (SOEST), Scripps Institute of Oceanography (SIO) and the Ocean Recovery Alliance are among those studying the probable path of this marine debris with computer models and using both satellite-tracked buoys and wooden blocks imprinted with a request that the finder notify SOEST of their location that have been dropped into the mass of floating materials.

Here’s what the Ocean Recovery Alliance says about the possible problems this debris could pose:

1. Large dense patches of floating debris are an immediate threat to maritime safety, including safety of fishery activities.

2. Urban debris washed to sea by tsunami waves may be contaminated with toxins and infections that are characteristic for industrial centers and large cities.

3. Debris may shelter different species that are characteristic for the coastal waters of Japan and help them to survive a trans-Pacific voyage to the waters of the US West Coast and Hawai’i.

4. Tsunami debris may increase the amount of plastic and other material that has accumulated in the North Pacific, and may exaggerate its impact on the ecosystem throughout the ocean.