Tsunami debris arriving on Washington shores sooner than expected

Japan earthquake
Floating debris from the Japan tsunami (Photo: US Navy/Specialist 3rd Class Alexander Tidd)

Growing up, we had some prize beachcomber’s treasure in my backyard: a pair of antique glass fishing buoys that had broken free from a Japanese fishing net and bobbed their way across the Pacific.

The floats stirred my young imagination about our mysterious watery connection with Japan, and incited a voracious streak of local beach-combing.

It looks like the coming months will bring ample reason to go beach-combing again, but this time the flotsam drifting in from our westerly neighbors prompts far more tragic imaginings.

The tsunami that devastated the coast of Japan last year ripped an estimated 20 million tons of debris from the ruined shoreline. More than 200,000 buildings and homes disappeared with the wave, roughly equivalent to two thirds of all of the homes in Seattle disappearing into the sea at once.

Surely much of that tangled mess of buildings and belongings has sunk, but the wreckage that has remained afloat may be hitting our Washington beaches far sooner than predicted.

Last week a Japanese ghost ship swept away by the tsunami was sighted off the coast of Canada, an early warning that tsunami remains that may be creeping on our coastline ahead of schedule.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n9ewPVAalNQ]

The NOAA and researchers at the University of Hawaii had predicted the arrival of tsunami debris in the beginning of 2013. But retired oceanographer and author of Flotsametrics and the Floating World, Curtis C. Ebbesmeyer, says that flotsam like kerosene containers, plastic vinegar bottles and Styrofoam buoys used by Japanese oyster farms started washing up on the Pacific coastline as early as last October.

Photo collage of likely tsunami debris by Dave Ingraham

“The higher a flotsam sticks above the water, the faster a given wind will sail it across the ocean,” he writes in the Beachcomber’s Alert, a blog where he compiles the recorded findings of up to 10,000 participating beachcombers.

On the NOAA Marine Debris Blog, Director Nancy Wallace assures us that the tsunami refuse will not arrive as the massive flotilla that some shock-value headlines might have us imagine.

“Consider this,” she writes, “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

We don’t know when, or exactly how much, debris will hit our shores. But with the appearance of the unmanned Japanese ship, we can assume that more big remains are making their way across the Pacific.

And some Northwesterners are getting ready.

One B.C. fisherman and tugboat operator was eager to tow the ghost ship, preparing his boat and a salvage crew after hearing news of the ship’s arrival. But it turns out salvage laws prohibit individuals from laying claim to derelict vessels.

Instead tsunami refuse will be dealt with systematically on a state-by-state basis. Any large debris, like a boat, that poses a risk to navigation or threatens to produce an oil spill, will be dealt with by the Coast Guard, said Eric Muller of Ballard Diving and Salvage, one company that could be contracted by the Coast Guard to deal with incoming vessels.

Smaller boats or ones that sneak in and beach at night undetected may fall under the jurisdiction of the Department of Natural Resources or the Department of Ecology.

salvage Ballard
Welders cut a ship's hull during ship-breaking operations (Photo courtesy Ballard Diving and Salvage)

The cost of dealing with a derelict vessel varies dramatically and is determined on a case-by-case basis. But any way you cut it, it’s expensive, said Muller. To start with you have to deal with hazardous materials like asbestos, or lead paint. And then there is “breaking the ship,” or dismantling it, a process that often requires a specialized shipyard.

For truly large vessels, the closest shipyard to Washington that can perform such work is in San Francisco. If that yard is jammed full then a large vessel would be towed all the way through the Panama Canal to a shipyard in Texas, Muller said.

Not a cheap process.

Boats aside, my beachcomber’s brain is fixated on the arrival of smaller things: cherished items that survived the disaster and then the thousand mile journey to wash up on our shores.

Let each piece remind us of the heartbreak of our neighbors across the Pacific, and of our own vulnerable proximity to the sea.

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