Lindsey Hoshaw
Coming across Japanese tsunami debris has an unexpected effect: personalizing a tragedy.

This piece is fascinating not only because it highlights the vast and largely untracked amounts of Japanese tsunami debris still being run across by researchers, but the effects it has on the researchers themselves. Imagine encountering a pile of floating junk in the sea and suddenly realizing you are looking at the contents of a bathroom that used to be the private refuge of someone who may still be living an ocean away. The work of our friends at Pangaea Exploration, 5 Gyres and others, illustrated here, is bringing this to light. — Ed.


As originally published on NY Times Green blog, Sept. 3, 2012.


ABOARD THE SEA DRAGON, 1,000 miles east of Japan — After narrowly avoiding a typhoon, battling seasickness and being pelted by rain for days on end, crew members aboard the Sea Dragon were galvanized by the sight of a stranded boat

A skiff marked with Japanese characters and torn in half was most likely an artifact of the tsunami that struck eastern Japan last year. Photo: Lindsey Hoshaw for NY Times Green.

The 150-pound piece of a skiff, torn in half and adorned with Japanese characters, was most likely a remnant of the tsunami that struck eastern Japan last year.

This scientific expedition was unusual in many ways, including the fact that it didn’t contain any scientists. Members of the volunteer crew hailed from six countries and lived on a yacht for a month in hopes of finding an array of debris they could photograph and blog about.

They are part of a citizens’ brigade that has been fanning out along the West Coast and in the Pacific, collecting and categorizing thousands of items that were swept out to sea after an 8.9-magnitude earthquake sent a tsunami crashing into coastal Japanese communities in March 2011. In some cases, they are tracking down and returning items to their owners.

These citizen scientists aren’t waiting for government direction. Kayakers in Washington have taken it upon themselves to explore remote islands for refuse, surfers in Oregon have posted cleanup guidelines on local beaches, and scuba divers in Hawaii have retrieved debris off the coast of Maui.

Their efforts have quickly become the backbone of a national effort to better understand what is washing up along thousands of miles of coastline.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which has domain over United States waters, deployed a drone above Oahu in June to determine whether aerial monitoring is feasible. Fishing nets, wooden construction debris and buoys were placed in the water to test whether the Puma unmanned aircraft would recognize the objects and then send images back to NOAA via satellite.

But NOAA has also been relying, in part, on volunteers. The agency has received more than 1,000 reports of marine debris on United States beaches since the organization started its marine debris hot line last December.

Not all debris is from Japan, but confirmed pieces of tsunami debris include five derelict fishing boats, a soccer ball, a volleyball and several fishing floats.

Citizen scientists have taken an archaeological interest in the flotsam.

“The tsunami debris is something of a time capsule,” said Ken Campbell, a professional kayaker who, with two fellow guides, has toured Washington islands looking for lost items.

Many see the debris field as a watery Pompeii, eloquent but impermanent, soon to be wiped clean by the force of waves and gravity.

“Beachcombers are like archaeologists, and if you don’t talk to them when the debris arrives, the info is lost,” said Curtis Ebbesmeyer, an oceanographer who started the world’s largest beachcombing organization.

Along with the Algalita Marine Research Institute, Marcus Eriksen, whose marine conservation nonprofit organization, 5 Gyres Institute, chartered the Sea Dragon expedition in June, said the natural disaster hit home. “When you see this swath of debris washing ashore, it’s hard not to feel connected to their tragedy because in some ways you experienced it with them.”

Japanese officials estimate that up to 1.5 million tons of debris is still afloat, and large items like a concrete dock and a Harley-Davidson motorcycle have already washed up along the coast of Oregon and British Columbia. Dr. Ebbesmeyer says a majority of the debris will make landfall in October.

“This situation is pretty unprecedented,” said Nancy Wallace, director of NOAA’s marine debris program. “We’ve never dealt with things moving across the ocean at this scale.”

Out in the northeastern Pacific Ocean during the expedition in June, Dr. Eriksen and the Sea Dragon crew found a Bridgestone tire that said “made in Japan,” a metal propane tank, a large oval buoy from an oyster farm and several buckets and crates with embossed Japanese characters.

Each day during a mandatory three-hour watch, crew members were required to steer and look for oncoming vessels, and the citizen scientists recorded debris sightings in a thick logbook that was based on NOAA protocols. The most avid pollution-seekers would stand for hours at the bow of the ship with a pool skimmer, trying to scoop up every floating fragment.

Tsunami debris has also been sighted as far north as Kayak Island in the Gulf of Alaska. Stanley Rice, program manager for habitat studies at the Auke Bay Laboratories, said he has seen a tenfold increase in the amount of all debris on Kayak Island in recent years.

It is not surprising that the island has accumulated more debris than its neighbors, because of the way Kayak Island runs perpendicular to the Alaska current, which brings items ashore.

“This year we saw a lot more Styrofoam chunks, I mean a lot more, so I think statistically you could say that’s pretty good evidence that it’s from the tsunami,” Dr. Rice said.

Among the thousands of other pieces of debris were water bottles, nets, gill net floats, buoys and lumber. “We’re going to see it washing ashore for a while,” he said. “There’s just so much more debris out there.”

Mr. Campbell, along with two other professional sea kayakers, Jason Goldstein and Steve Weileman, started the Ikkatsu Project in May to examine islands off the coast of Washington that are virtually inaccessible by foot because of rugged coastal cliffs.

One of their biggest debris finds was a pile of lumber that included the lid of a potty-training toilet, a laundry hamper, a bottle of cherry-flavored cough syrup, several brown glass bottles and pieces of a washing machine marked with Japanese characters.

Mr. Campbell and his colleagues believe that the fragments were part of a bathroom that washed out to sea during the tsunami.

“When we started digging through the pile, that’s when it hit home: We’re in someone’s house right now,” Mr. Campbell said.

Using a serial number imprinted on the wood, the kayakers were able to track the lumber to a mill in Osaka. When Mr. Campbell cut off a piece of the wood, he said it was dry inside and smelled like sap — another indication that the debris hadn’t been at sea long.

Debris from the tsunami is expected to wash ashore over the next several years. While it is a floating archaeology project for some, and a scientific experiment for others, it is also a tangible reminder of nature’s perils.

“I’m constantly struck by the idea that this is a very small planet,” Mr. Campbell said. “Something that happens on the other side of the ocean has become something you can see and touch in your backyard. It’s a pretty powerful thing.”




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