If you live in Hawai’i or on the West Coast you’ve probably seen those aerial photos of a giant field of debris washed into the ocean by the Japan tsunami of March 2011. You may have read about an anticipated “barrage” of debris and of trash likely to be “dumped” on our shores beginning in 2012 and continuing, according to vagaries of wind and currents, to 2016, when the by-then widely dispersed debris circles back from the West Coast to the main Hawaiian islands. Given the long timeline and the lack of experience managing such a massive and unprecedented “spill,” the damage may turn out like the two most recent tsunami warnings — much less dramatic than expected. NOAA is preparing for either case, worse than expected or better, with the debris breaking up into smaller and smaller pieces that disperse, sparing coastal areas. The intense planning currently under way will not be wasted, however, even if the debris that started out in Japan does not hit all at once. It will eventually end up in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre with its so-called garbage patch and thus is sure to contribute to the oceans of trash that already litter our seacoasts. The source of this trash? That would be all of us. According to the Ocean Conservancy, the tsunami “is just a small part of the overall ocean trash problem”; our throwaway society creates a tsunami’s worth every year, much of it in plastic form.
NOAA Official on the Tsunami Debris
Hawai’i’s marine debris community was briefed this week about efforts to track and deal with the potentially big problem by Carey Morishige, Pacific Islands Regional Coordinator of NOAA’s Marine Debris Program. From her report, and the Marine Debris Website FAQs, there is not much new since my last post on the topic; no one knows when and where items known to be from the tsunami will wash up ashore as there’s no tracking data, only computer models (the debris has not been visible to satellites since April 2011). We also don’t know how much of it is still on the surface, and how much has sunk or degraded.
Because there has never been a situation like this–an unknown but presumably huge quantity of broken-up buildings, boats, cars, and appliances washed out to sea and caught up by unpredictable currents and wind–NOAA and other government agencies have had to draw on the techniques developed for dealing with the debris that washes up on coastlines in normal times; with this experience they have created the Japan Tsunami Marine Debris Assessment and Response Framework. The team–representatives from 40 agencies and organizations–met at a workshop in January to plan for identifying, measuring, and cleaning up the debris from the tsunami and perhaps even to prevent some of it from reaching some endangered places such as the slow-growing coral reefs of Kure in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands.
There’s an App for That
Part of the plan is to step up the measuring and identifying of debris that currently reaches our shores, and Morishige called on nonprofits that regularly conduct beach clean-ups and then separate and weigh components of the trash to contribute their data. TheNOAA unit wants to have a baseline record before anything comes in from the tsunami. Individuals can also contribute using a mobile phone app, the Marine Debris Tracker. You can track and log items you see when you’re at the beach or in a boat on the water; GPS records the debris location.
Be Part of the Solution, not Part of the Problem
The reason there is a network of agencies and organizations working to meet the challenge–and why NOAA has had a Marine Debris Program since 2006–is that Hawai’i, the East, West, and Gulf coasts of the US, and the Great Lakes all have a debris problem. Cutting down on single-use plastic–utensils, checkout bags, bottled water, straws–could make a real dent in this problem if everyone reused or, better, refused these items. As the Ocean Conservancy website says, ocean pollution is a massive problem, but it is “entirely preventable.” Keep watching the tabs at the top for what you can do to reduce the amount of trash entering the ocean.
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