Cantwell wants plan for floating Japan debris

By:  Kyung M. Song; Seattle Times Washington bureau
Source: The Seattle Times

WASHINGTON — The 2,000-mile-long debris field from the March tsunami in Japan is expected to reach beaches in Hawaii next winter and hit Washington state's coast starting in late 2013.

Yet U.S. authorities can't say yet how much of the massive flotsam will sink as it swirls through the North Pacific gyre and how much will wash ashore. They are pretty certain it won't be radioactive — requiring special disposal — but don't know for sure.

Sen. Maria Cantwell says the United States better prepare for whatever crosses the Pacific Ocean.

The Washington Democrat on Wednesday inserted an amendment in a Senate bill to order the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to come up with a contingency plan for what could be the biggest onslaught of marine garbage ever to hit North America.

While Japan is trying to recover from the most calamitous natural disaster in its history, "it will take the U.S. many years to continue to see the impacts of this," Cantwell said during a hearing of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

Cantwell noted that remnants of entire communities got sucked into the waters. They could threaten multimillion-dollar fishing, shipping and recreational industries 5,000 miles away.

"So we can't wait until all of this tsunami trash washes ashore," Cantwell said. "We need to have an aggressive plan on how we're going to deal with it."

Cantwell's provision, included in the Trash Free Seas Act of 2011, directs NOAA to coordinate with the Environmental Protection Agency and other groups to brace for everything from clogged waterways to hazards to fish and beachgoers.

"We are dealing with a huge debris field. We are talking about the leading edge covering miles of beach," said Curt Ebbesmeyer, a retired Seattle oceanographer who has tracked floating debris for decades.

According to the latest computer modeling, the debris patch spawned by Japan's magnitude-9.0 earthquake and the devastating tsunami that followed is approaching the Midway Islands in the North Pacific.

In September, a Russian sail-training ship heading home to Vladivostok from Honolulu made the first major sighting of the debris since it drifted away from the Japanese archipelago. Among the unmistakable links to the tsunami: a small fishing boat marked with its home port of Fukushima Prefecture, much of which was wiped out by the tidal waves.

Jan Hafner, a scientific computer programmer at the International Pacific Reseacher Center at University of Hawaii, said the Russians' report matched the trajectory predicted by him and his colleague, oceanographer Nikolai Maximenko. Maximenko and Hafner expect the debris to arrive in Hawaii in about a year.

Hafner said the debris most likely would hit Washington and Oregon as early as October 2013, with portions breaking off counterclockwise to Alaska and Canada and others drifting south to California. Hafner said the debris could wash ashore in Washington and Oregon for 24 months.

"Of course, the individual pieces may still come many years after the tsunami," Hafner said.

Some of the debris will make its way back to Japan six years after the tsunami. But Hafner said much of it will move slowly to the southwest between Honolulu and San Francisco to join the vast marine junkyard known as North Pacific Garbage Patch.

Luca Centurioni, a researcher at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at University of California, San Diego, stressed that wind and currents are constantly dispersing the debris.

"I don't expect an overwhelming mass of debris to appear overnight two years from now, but we should be prepared for a sensible increase of debris being washed ashore," said Centurioni, a principal investigator for NOAA-funded Global Drifter Program, which uses satellite-tracked buoys to monitor ocean conditions.

Ebbesmeyer, the Seattle oceanographer, estimates that the leading edge of the debris patch is traveling about 20 miles a day and the concentrated mass in the rear is moving about seven miles a day.

Immediately after the tsunami, autos and other heavy objects sank while paper and other biodegradable items disappeared. But Ebbesmeyer said some things are surprisingly buoyant, including refrigerators filled with plastic parts.

Centurioni said the objects that beachcombers in Washington will encounter first will be anything that stuck out of the water and caught the most wind. Among the items that the Russian sailors spotted shortly after passing Midway Islands were a TV set, a refrigerator, boots, drums, wooden boards and plastic bottles.

Jason Rolfe, deputy director of NOAA's Marine Debris Program in Silver Spring, Md., said the agency's preparation efforts have been hampered by lack of certainty about exactly what and how much trash will reach U.S. shores. Nonetheless, NOAA expects the greatest impact to fall on vessel navigation; recreation and tourism; and habitat damage and entanglements for marine life.

NOAA thinks it's highly unlikely the debris is contaminated, because it was swept out to sea before the hobbled Japanese nuclear reactors leaked radiation. The Russians tested the fishing ship they found with a Geiger counter and found its radioactivity level to be normal.