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Just How Radiated Are the Japanese Seas?

As the world’s attention rushes from one natural disaster to the next—tornadoes, 100-year floods, earthquakes, and tsunamis—let’s not lose track of all the radiated water that continues to leak into the ocean along the Japanese coast.

Photo: Ho New / Reuters

While natural disasters are bad by definition, it’s the continued leaking of the Fukushima nuclear plant that may have the most long-lasting environmental impact due to the partial meltdowns, hydrogen explosions, and fires that released unmeasured amounts of radioactive contaminant into air and water.

The plant’s operator, TEPCO, initially dumped 11,500 tons of highly contaminated water on land, which quickly made its way to the ocean. In just the first six days of the spill, which began on April 1, more than 520,000 tons of high-level radioactive water is believed to have reached the sea. That’s 20,000 times the annual allowable limit.

Efforts to cool the reactors with seawater and fresh water continue to poison the ocean more than six weeks after the earthquake—as does fallout, precipitation runoff, and newfound leaks.

At this point no one knows exactly how much contaminated water has been dumped or how truly degradading the spill will be in either the short or long-term.

In separate reports issued this week, Greenpeace and the Japanese government say that samples collected near the plant have shown elevated levels of radiation. Both suggest “containment” is next to impossible.

According to Greenpeace, 10 of 22 seaweed samples collected showed levels five times higher than the standard set for food in Japan. “Radioactive contamination is accumulating in the marine ecosystem that provides Japan with a quarter of its seafood, yet the authorities are still doing very little to protect public health,” Greenpeace radiation expert Ike Teuling said in a statement. So far radiation has only been found in one fish species, the Japanese sand lance.

Any such statistics must be worrying to Japanese citizens, for whom seaweed is a dietary staple.

The government’s report was based on studying the radiation levels of garbage, which at one point after the spill spiked to 85 times the allowable levels of radioactive Iodine-131.

Why is the garbage so laced? The government thinks it’s related to rain carrying radiated water into gutters, storm sewers, and dumps.

Oceanographers from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute are on the scene in Japan and suggest the groundwater around Fukushima and sediments in the seafloor nearby “will likely be contaminated for decades.” At this point the long-term impact on marine life, fish, and other marine animals can only be guessed.

One of those guesses suggests that the radiated water will only impact the coast of Japan; Woods Hole is readying a research ship to begin observing there.

The leak of contaminated water offers researchers a unique opportunity to test both currents and the longevity and dilutability of a variety of radioactive isotopes. Several types of long-living isotopes will be tracked as they move across the Pacific Ocean (Technetium-99, for example, which is thought to have a half life of 210,000 years and Iodine-29, which has a half-life of 14 million years).

The general current sweeps west from Japan across the Pacific towards the west coast of the U.S.; it’s expected the contaminated water will reach Hawaii in about a year and California in two to three years. By that time it should be “significantly” diluted.

As the growth of nuclear energy continues to expand around the globe during the twenty first century—and as inevitable accidents continue — governments will most likely get better at assessing and tracking radioactive contamination…just as they did pesticide pollution during the 20th century.

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

Will Japan’s Sushi Soon Be Radioactive?

Given the hammering Japan’s northern coastal towns took from the earthquake/tsunami, and the ongoing radiation leaks from Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant, the future of fishing from the region has come into question. Just like the fishermen in the Gulf after the BP spill, seafood providers across Japan are concerned about public-relations fallout—even if its fish stays available and safe, i.e. nonradioactive.

Tokyo’s Tsukiji Fish Market, the world’s biggest—selling more than 400 species of fish six days a week, a $5.5-billion-a-year business supplying 40 million Japanese fish-lovers—has not yet backed off any species, but buyers have fallen off due to a lack of fish.

The immediate concern is that so many of the small towns in the north—and their boats, docks, jetties, nets, tackle and fishermen—are gone. Fish farms and onshore processing plants have been wiped out. Hundreds of thousands of wild fish washed onto shore, dead. Scallops, sardines, oysters, seaweed, bonito and even shark’s fin have largely disappeared from Tsukiji in the past week.

The normally packed aisles of the sprawling market—the equivalent of 200 football fields under one roof—are relatively empty of buyers. “We’re not selling anything because there are no customers,” one wholesaler reported. Renowned sushi restaurants adjacent to the market are suffering too, in part due to the lack of tourists.

The Tsukiji market’s general manager, Tsutomu Kosaka, told the New York Times, “It’s not like the brand is just damaged now—it’s over. At least for now, the brand is finished. Gone. It’s hopeless.”

(For the rest of my dispatch go to

Waves of Ruin: Japanese Fishing Business Hammered

Among the first to be alerted to the shaking and rending of the earth off the coast of Japan last Friday? The fish.

While no video captured a mass exodus of sea creatures presciently fleeing the epicenter, it’s assumed that animals sense seismic trouble before man does. A squirrel can hear a dry leaf rustle more than 300 feet away. Elephants pick up infrasound.

Workers cleaning up after the 2004 Indonesian tsunami were surprised by how few dead dogs, horses, elephants and reptiles were found. They surmised that the animals had sensed the incoming disruption, and had headed for the hills. Even a five-second head start can be crucial when tsunami waves are coming.

On Friday, currents and powerful waves swept schools of fish toward Alaska in the north and Chile in the south. Yahoo News reported a boom day for fishermen off the coast of Mexico.

(For the rest of my dispatch go to

Planet Shrugs, Earthquakes and Tsunamis Follow

Despite the incredible destruction caused by Friday’s earth-rupture and the subsequent massive waves that devastated Japan’s coastline – officially the ‘Honshu Tsunami’ – it was in many ways just another planetary flex.

The 8.9 magnitude earthquake tore a split in the ocean floor more than 200 miles long and sent thirty-foot waves towards Sendai. Experts are saying the quake was 8,000 times more powerful than the one that struck New Zealand just a few weeks ago and 7,000 times bigger than the one that crushed Haiti a year ago. One geophysical result of all that sub-ocean rumbling is that Japan is now 3.5 feet closer to the U.S. than it was a few day ago, its coastline dropped by two feet.

While the impacts on mankind are horrible and shocking earthquakes are still just the planet’s way of hitching up its pants, tectonically speaking.

Given the recent spate of powerful quakes around the world (Chile, an 8.8 magnitude temblor, the fifth strongest since 1900; the 6.0 quake that struck rural eastern Turkey) it would seem they are happening more frequently. But the truth is that the earth has always quaked; what’s different now is what’s happening above ground, not underground.

(For the rest of my dispatch go to