Debris from the March 11th 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami is rapidly approaching the BC coastline and in some places, is already here. The debris, estimated between 18 to 20 million tons, is expected to contain over 200,000 homes that were demolished in the earthquake and tsunami. That mass of debris, will also include fridges, homes, cars, tires and all manner of everyday objects. Surprisingly, it is about the same amount of trash that enters the pacific ocean in a year, but this all happened in a day and it is clumping together, forming ‘debris islands’.
The US Navy has been tracking the debris, and reports that some of the debris islands are up to 69 miles (111kms) long and the debris clusters are a danger to shipping, potentially capable of putting holes in hulls or fouling engines and propellers. This is another example of how truly connected we all are on our planet, how the ocean currents touch continents thousands of miles apart, how fragile human existence can be and what a mess we often leave behind that affects not only humans, animals but the whole eco-system.
In Tofino, BC, many residents believe the debris is already arriving at the world-renowned west coast mecca for surfing. They have found plastic water bottles with Japanese writing, toothbrushes and even socks. If the debris arrives as predicted, then their surf business and holiday vacationers may disappear as quickly as the debris washes up. A 250-litre Japanese fishing buoy recently washed ashore between Oregon and Alaska.
The International Pacific Research Center at the University of Hawaii has modeled the debris field, predicting it was about 483 kilometres (300 miles) northwest of the Midway Islands in September 2011, but faster floating items, perhaps also wind driven, are already arriving on the BC coast. Estimates of debris patch size vary, but some predictions suggest it covers an area 3,200 x 1,600kms (1,988 x 994 miles) in size - five times bigger than Vancouver Island.
Another fear is that some of the debris could be radioactive, as the tsunami swept through Fukushima nuclear power plants that got smashed by 13.1m (43ft) tall walls of water. It would be good idea if we could start removing the debris from the ocean, rather than leaving it all to cause havoc with the ocean eco-system, or simply wait until it washes up on our beaches.
Trevor Williams is a University of Victoria Mechanical Engineering PhD candidate specializing in renewable energy, power grid modeling and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles. He has a bachelors in Aeronautical Engineering, a Masters in Management Science and over 23 years international experience in the space industry, having worked on Earth observation and telecommunications satellites. He is the author of the Eco-Geek blog.