As the one-year anniversary of the devastating March 11, 2011, Japanese earthquake approaches, and debris from the ensuing tsunami moves closer to the West Coast, a group of Oregon agencies, university scientists, political staff, non-governmental organizations and others is preparing for its arrival.
This week, the group held a conference call to review Oregon’s response to the potential arrival of the debris and to chart a communication strategy to educate West Coast residents about what may happen. Questions directed at state and county leaders, Oregon State University Extension experts, the OSU Hatfield Marine Science Center and others are increasing daily.
When will the debris arrive? Where will it land? Is there any danger of radioactivity? What shall we do if we find something?
Jack Barth, an OSU oceanographer and expert in ocean currents, said the debris is still months away from arriving on the West Coast, though it is possible that strong winds may push some floating items that rise high above the surface more quickly to the North American shore. Floats from Japanese fishing nets have washed up on the Washington coast in recent weeks, but those haven’t been tied directly to the tsunami.
“Material from Asia washes up on the West Coast routinely,” Barth said. “It doesn’t necessarily mean it is tsunami-related. A Russian ship discovered a small Japanese fishing boat in the waters north of Hawaii in October that was definitively tied to the tsunami – and it was about where we thought it should be, given the currents.” NOAA reports no radiation was detected on the fishing boat.
Barth said it is difficult to calculate how much debris remains in the ocean, and what exactly will arrive on our shore.
When and how it arrives is a matter of ocean physics, he pointed out.
“Much of the debris generated from the earthquake and tsunami has or will become waterlogged, weighed down with barnacles or other organisms, and sink,” Barth said. “A large fraction of it will be diverted south into the ‘Garbage Patch’ between Hawaii and the West Coast, and may circulate in that gyre.
“What remains should arrive here at the end of 2012, or the beginning of 2013,” he added. “If it arrives in the fall and winter, it will get pushed up north by the currents to Washington, British Columbia and even Alaska. Debris arriving in late spring and summer will hit Oregon and be swept south into California waters.”
What does arrive is unlikely to be dangerous, according to Kathryn Higley, professor and head of the Department of Nuclear Engineering and Radiation Health Physics at OSU. Higley was one of the most widely cited scientists following the incidents at Japan’s Dai-ichi nuclear plant after the earthquake. She says the lag time between the tsunami and the nuclear incident, coupled with the vastness of the ocean, makes it unlikely that the debris will carry any danger from radiation.
“The major air and water discharges of radioactive material from the Dai-ichi plants occurred a few days after the debris field was created by the tsunami,” Higley pointed out. “So the debris field was spread out at the time the discharges occurred. This would have diluted the radiological impact.
“Secondly, wind, rain and salt spray have been pummeling this material for months,” she said. “The key radionuclides are composed of iodine and cesium – which are chemically a lot like chlorine and sodium. Most of the iodine has gone because of radioactive decay. The radioactive cesium, to a great extent, will be washed off and diluted in the surrounding ocean.
“Therefore, while we may be able to detect trace amounts of radioactive material on this debris, it’s really unlikely that there will be any substantial radiation risk,” Higley said.
Staci Simonich, an OSU professor of Environmental and Molecular Toxicology, has been monitoring the air for emissions from Japan and said that since last April, radiation levels were at “background.”
“Those are naturally occurring levels – at concentrations far below standards for public safety,” she said.
NOAA is monitoring the debris from a national perspective and has a website that can educate the public and keep interested persons updated. It is at http://marinedebris.noaa.gov/.
The agency suggests that beachcombers and others who find material they think may be from Japan report it at firstname.lastname@example.org – and use common sense.
They write: “As with any outdoors activity, it is important to follow common sense and put safety first. Avoid picking up debris that you are not well-equipped and trained to handle. For example, be careful of sharp objects that could cut yours hands; avoid picking up sealed containers of chemicals – they may crack or break and spill the content on you; likewise, report any full drum on the beach, and avoid handling it yourself. If you are uncomfortable handling any debris item, leave it where it is.”
Jamie Doyle, an OSU Extension Sea Grant specialist in Coos and Curry counties, said a variety of Oregon agencies and non-governmental organizations are beginning to plan for various response scenarios. As Oregon’s planning progresses, she says, “expect more information for the public.”
“One other concern is what should happen if someone finds any personal effects,” Doyle said. “A lot of people lost their lives, and many people still have family members who are missing. We need to be sensitive to the possibility of finding something that may be of personal significance to someone in Japan.”
Patrick Corcoran, an OSU Extension Sea Grant specialist for the North Coast, said the focus thus far has been on research and “building the capacity to respond” to the arrival of the debris. Specific information on Oregon resources and contacts will be forthcoming, he said.
Among the other organizations working on planning: Oregon Surfrider Foundation, Stop Oregon Litter and Vandalism, Coast Watch, Oregon Emergency Management, Oregon Public Health Division; West Coast Governors’ Alliance; Oregon Parks and Recreation Department; Oregon Refuse and Recycling Association; Oregon Fishermen’s Cable Committee; Office of U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden; Office of Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber; Washed Ashore; Oregon Department of Environmental Quality; Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development; U.S. Coast Guard; and Western Oregon Waste.