Tsunami Debris: Dangerous Junk or Booty in Disguise?
Since leaking nuclear radiation is hard to visualize, the lasting images of Japan’s earthquake/tsunami are still those from its very first day: Walls of rushing seawater pushing cars and fishing boats like matchboxes, men and women swinging in high tree branches, and fast-moving ocean water swallowing farm fields, parking lots and airport runways.
The single most-powerful image to me is the intact roof of a solitary house afloat in the Pacific Ocean, 10 miles off the coastline. After seeing his wife swept to sea, the house’s owner had clung to the shingles for two days.
Where will that house end up? Washed back into shore somewhere in northern Japan? Sunk to the ocean bottom? Or ripped asunder by waves, its pieces destined to float on the ocean forever, caught up in an endlessly spinning gyre? Will the rafters maybe one day wash up on a far shoreline, in a distant country? Say the U.S.
The last scenario may be the most accurate preview of events.
U.S. Navy spotter planes over the Pacific have documented vast fields of floating debris—one measured 70 miles long, covering 2.2 million square feet—heading slowly eastward. Shipping traffic is being encouraged to go around the floating masses, rather than attempt to cut through. The mass includes cars, parts of the 200,000 buildings that were washed out to sea, capsized boats of varying sizes, even tractor trailers. The junk could take a couple of years to reach Honolulu, and another 12 months before washing up in Los Angeles.
Scientists at the University of Hawaii, using real time satellite info, have constructed computer programs to estimate the debris’s path. The model suggests the wreckage will eventually land on beaches from Alaska to Baja. The biggest and most buoyant remains will arrive first: tires, ropes, roofs of houses. A fair amount of Japan’s junk is predicted to eventually bounce off the west coast of the U.S., head back to Hawaii and mesh with the flotsam in the North Pacific Garbage Patch. Sadly, as it breaks down into smaller and smaller bits, much of the debris will be ingested by curious marine creatures.
Some Hawaiians feel that their beaches have become a focal point to study all floating ocean pollution.
“We live in Hawaii on the edge of the biggest dump site in the world,” says Nikolai Maximenko of the International Pacific Research Center. “We live in paradise on the edge of hell.”
In 2005, I visited Malaysia and the Maldives just weeks after tsunami waves washed from Indonesian shores all the way to the east coast of Africa. Detritus arrived quickly in the Maldives, in the form of super-valuable, eight-foot-round mahogany trees. Locals considered the trees treasure. Fights broke out between island governments and landowners over who “owned” the rights to mill and sell the wood. (Ultimately, I think, they agreed to split the found lumber 50/50.)
So maybe there will be a silver lining in Japan’s clouds of debris. They might provide a treasure trove to scientists a few decades in the future.
Journalist Donavan Hohn recently published, to good critical review, Moby Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists, and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them. The reporting follows the January 10, 1992, spill of rubber ducks off a Chinese cargo ship that was tossed about in 36-foot seas in the North Pacific. By tracing the path of the ducks, which wind, waves and current carried literally around the world, from the Arctic to the Atlantic, the North Pacific to Antarctica, the book proves that what looks like ocean trash to some may be scientific—or economic—gold to others.
(For the rest of my dispatch go to takepart.com)