NOAA issues tsunami debris alert from model

Source here. Mind the caveat though:

The Japanese government estimated that the tsunami generated 25 million tons of rubble, but there is no clear understanding of exactly how much debris was swept into the water nor what remained afloat.

Tracking Marine Debris from the Japanese Tsunami

Debris scatters in the Pacific Ocean, possibly heading to U.S.

Debris from the tsunami that devastated Japan in March could reach the United States as early as this winter, according to predictions by NOAA scientists. However, they warn there is still a large amount of uncertainty over exactly what is still floating, where it’s located, where it will go, and when it will arrive. Responders now have a challenging, if not impossible situation on their hands: How do you deal with debris that could now impact U.S. shores, but is difficult to find?

Federal Agencies Join Forces

To learn more about the tsunami debris, NOAA researchers have been working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and other partners to coordinate data collection activities.

NOAA and its partners are also coordinating an interagency assessment and response plan to address the wide-range of potential scenarios and threats posed by the debris.

“We’re preparing for the best and worst case scenarios — and everything in between,” says Nancy Wallace, director for NOAA’s Marine Debris Program.

As the tsunami surge receded, it washed much of what was in the coastal inundation zone into the ocean. Boats, pieces of smashed buildings, appliances, and plastic, metal, and rubber objects of all shapes and sizes washed into the water — either sinking near the shore or floating out to sea. The refuse formed large debris fields captured by satellite imagery and aerial photos of the coastal waters.

The Japanese government estimated that the tsunami generated 25 million tons of rubble, but there is no clear understanding of exactly how much debris was swept into the water nor what remained afloat.

What remains of the debris?

Nine months later, debris fields are no longer visible. Winds and ocean currents scattered items in the massive North Pacific Ocean to the point where debris is no longer visible from satellite.  Vessels regularly traveling the North Pacific have reported very few sightings. Only two pieces have been clearly linked to the tsunami.

NOAA is coordinating new interagency reporting and monitoring efforts that will provide critical information on the location of the marine debris generated by the tsunami. Ships can now report significant at-sea debris sightings and individuals or groups can request shoreline monitoring guides at DisasterDebris@noaa.gov.

Where is it?

Computer models run by NOAA and University of Hawaii researchers show some debris could pass near or wash ashore in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (in the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument) as early as this winter, approach the West Coast of the United States and Canada in 2013, and circle back to the main Hawaiian Islands in 2014 through 2016.

Researchers caution that models are only predictions based on location of debris when it went into the water, combined with historical ocean currents and wind speeds.

Conditions in the ocean constantly change, and items can sink, break down, and disperse across a huge area. Because it is not known what remains in the water column nor where, scientists can’t determine with certainty if any debris will wash ashore.

Worst- and Best-case Scenarios

The worst-case scenario is boats and unmanageable concentrations of other heavy objects could wash ashore in sensitive areas, damage coral reefs, or interfere with navigation in Hawaii and along the U.S. West Coast. Best case? The debris will break up, disperse and eventually degrade, sparing coastal areas.

Debris will not go away completely, even in a best-case scenario. Marine debris is an ongoing problem for Hawaii and West Coast states, where garbage and other harmful items regularly wash up on beaches, reefs and other coastal areas.

What Else is NOAA Doing?

NOAA has convened experts to review available data and information from models and provide their perspectives on debris fate and transport. They are gathering information on significant sighting of marine debris in the North Pacific through NOAA’s Office of Marine and Aviation Operation’s Pacific fleet, the NOAA Voluntary Observing Ship Program, which includes industry long-haul transport vessels, as well as the NOAA Pacific Island Regional Observer Program and their work with the Hawaii longline fishing industry. NOAA is also working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the State of Hawaii on shoreline debris monitoring in the Papahānaumokuākea Monument.

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62 thoughts on “NOAA issues tsunami debris alert from model

  1. Why is the EPA allowing this? They should impose severe fines and penalties for cleanup..
    There should be a law against fugitive waste on the ocean like the one they want to impose on farmers.

  2. Perhaps Greenpeace could be apprised of the danger to whales represented by this flotsam and jetsam. They could take their fleet of pirate / anti-whaling ships and scour the ocean at high speed looking for more evidence of the ‘evil’ Japanese and their environmental abuses. Hopefully they wil be swamped with trash – literally.

  3. Debris fate and transport modeling? It would make an interesting intellectual exercise if it weren’t my tax dollars.

  4. Some of that ‘debris’ will be valuable if it survives the trip. Art, samurai swords and other regalia, glass fishing floats, etc. I imagine that there will be a hoard of beachcombers descending on the west coast very soon.

  5. ‘“We’re preparing for the best and worst case scenarios — and everything in between,” says Nancy Wallace.’
    ‘Conditions in the ocean constantly change, and items can sink, break down, and disperse across a huge area. Because it is not known what remains in the water column nor where, scientists can’t determine with certainty if any debris will wash ashore.’
    In the meanwhile, NOAA is committing resources from several of their own offices and requiring the Hawaii longline fishing industry, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the State of Hawaii to make their own committments chasing this phantasm of their own paranoia.

  6. The debris is a job generator for fisherman from the west coast who have been hurt by the latest no fishing zones. Have them deploy their nets to clean up the debris from the ocean when it comes close, same for Hawaiian fisherys. What is cuaght can be dried and used for Biomass electric generation. Same thing can be done for the plastic blob floating in the pacific, then sold for recycling. Simple solutions that would better serve the oceans and land than funding more studys. This is just my humble thoughts on it, anybody have better ideas? Using common sense usually works better than studying things to death, at least things get done.

  7. I can already see EPA proposing CVBGs trawling the Pacific with nets tied to the ships to gather debris and offset operational costs via biomass and recycling plastic collection …

  8. Only a bunch of under-worked, over-paid bureaucrats would come up with something so silly and then make it seem like they’re doing critical work to save us from garbage.

    Marine debris is an ongoing problem for Hawaii and West Coast states, where garbage and other harmful items regularly wash up on beaches, reefs and other coastal areas.

    So, nothing new here … it’ll just be another batch of garbage to gather up from the shoreline once it arrives.

  9. I guess I don’t see the big problem here. Isn’t this how science is done? Our current knowledge is used to generate a model of the system. We now have a chance to gather some actual data to test the model and see where it gets things right, and where it breaks down.

    What’s not to like about gathering data from vessels who volunteer to do it?

  10. For those areas where the existing policy is to keep the shoreline clean, once the tsunami debris comes ashore, it will simply be classified into recyclable and non-recyclable components and then be disposed of along with all the other kinds of garbage which is usually being collected in such areas.

    No big deal, really. More likely than not, once the tsunami debris starts coming ashore, there will be a brief increase in the number of regular shoreline garbage patrols that are needed, and then things will return to normal.

  11. This is rubbish, in more than one way. It’s very simple to find and track this debris. Fly a TR-1 with a specially-modified radar system to monitor it. Most of this debris has a radar signature. Modifying the radar signal to penetrate up to twelve feet of ocean surface (in a calm ocean) is quite feasible. The TR-1 can monitor 35,000 square miles an hour, and can stay in the air for 12+ hours. They regularly fly out of Beale AFB in California. NASA and NOAA have U-2s, with other capabilities.

    The truth is, 90% of it has probably sunk, and another 8% will sink in any good storm. Wood and plastic (which isn’t very detectable by radar) are probably about all that’s left, and probably not very large pieces at that. A lot of sea creatures, however, have new hiding places.

  12. I think, using the Precautionary Principle, it would be best for all Americans to stay away from West Coast, Hawaiian and Alaskan beaches in 2012. The Japanese tsunami debris is likely to be radioactive: don’t forget, a lot of iodine and caesium products leaked into the sea water. Just because some of the radionucleides have short half-lives doesn’t mean there won’t be residual radioactivity.

    Maybe y’all should step away from the bananas too.

  13. Some Japanese tsunami debris has already started hitting the shore along the northern Washington coast and on Vancouver Island in Canada over the last two months. So, it’s not some maybe thing. It’s more a question of how much and what time frame it will occur.

  14. Tsunamis have always swept vast amounts of debris out to sea. As a matter of fact this is probably the way a lot of the organisms on the Hawaiian islands originally got there.
    By the way the estimate of 25 million tons seems rather low to me. The northeastern shore of Honshu is very heavily wooded and huge numbers of trees must have been uprooted by the tsunami (oddly enough Japan has proportionally more forests than the US). And trees float better and are a lot more durable than most man-made debris.
    And curiousgeorge, I’m afraid that samurai swords don’t float very well.

  15. JohnT,
    “Isn’t this how science is done? Our current knowledge is used to generate a model of the system. We now have a chance to gather some actual data to test the model and see where it gets things right, and where it breaks down.”

    Actually I don’t think this is how science is done. You start with observations and data and come to a theory AFTER … btw … how did science get done before computers ?

  16. This is not new – the ocean debris issue. About 3 years ago when I visited northern Japan (in a town I lived in for seven years from the early 70s until 1980) I visited the seashore near there. The beaches of this seashore were where the large tsunami hit earlier this year. At that time several years ago, these beautiful beaches were covered with all kinds of debris from refrigerator sized pieces on down. I asked my friends why the normally tidy Japanese had allowed their beaches to become so dirty. They told me that they had tried and tried to clean them up (local governments, volunteer groups, etc.) but even though they continued to clean the beaches the debris kept coming back. Some effort was made to identify this debris and Chinese and Korean labels were found on almost all of it (in my earlier stay and subsequent visits I had never seen such a mess). Some of the debris was found to be medical waste. It was learned that ocean dumping (often times illegal) by both the Koreans and the Chinese had really escalated in the past few years and Japan was unable to do much about it. I am sure that the Japanese would be very interested in helping to clean up other countries that they have inadvertently spoiled when considering what has been done to their shores.

    Bernie

  17. We have a tendency to see events like this from purely a negative standpoint. However, one man’s debris can be another specie’s habitat. It would be really interesting to see the impacts on the open ocean fish production- where such “raft” habitat is limited. There will be entire mini-ecosystems organizing around the larger debris fields. It would also be interesting to see if (or how many) small vertebrates and invertebrates will be able to use this raft as a dispersal mechanism to cross the ocean- something very difficult to do without such large scale floating habitat.
    In essence this is the largest manmade fish aggregating device ever seen and it would be a shame to miss out on the wealth of things this opportunity could teach us.

  18. tty says:
    December 29, 2011 at 11:06 am

    And curiousgeorge, I’m afraid that samurai swords don’t float very well.
    ========================================================

    Not by themselves, but many of those, and related family heirlooms, are kept in boxes, etc. It’s not beyond the realm of possiblity, although unlikely, that something of value would survive the trip.

  19. I really wonder whether all this debris tracking and models are any cheaper than simple waiting for when something appears ashore and cleaning it up.

  20. From NOAA “The worst-case scenario is boats and unmanageable concentrations of other heavy objects could wash ashore in sensitive areas, damage coral reefs, or interfere with navigation in Hawaii and along the U.S. West Coast. Best case? The debris will break up, disperse and eventually degrade, sparing coastal areas.”

    What NOAA doesn’t want to discuss is our practice of removing all large woody debris from our surface waters has had massive negative impacts on both salmon production. So wood slamming into coral is bad but removing wood that salmon need is good. One day I’ll figure out the logic.

  21. Man, I can’t tell you what dreck I think this whole exercise is. The freakin’ EPA has a joint project with NOAA and Fish and Wildlife to track a trivial amount of garbage on the other side of the Pacific??

    I loved this part:

    Vessels regularly traveling the North Pacific have reported very few sightings. Only two pieces have been clearly linked to the tsunami.

    Two pieces?

    In any case, back to the science, back-of-envelope variety. They estimate 25 million tonnes of rubble. From the photos of the huge walls of rubble, and the fact that much of it was pushed way inshore, or simply smashed where it stood, I’ll estimate that only about one part in 25 was swept to sea, perhaps a million tonnes.

    Now, out of that million tonnes, some unknown amount will become waterlogged and sink in a short time. In addition, some other unknown amount will be broken apart by the ceaseless action of wind, wave, and sun.

    Finally, much of what remains after the ocean has done its best will be … wood. The Japanese build a lot with wood, and it would have made up a large amount of what went into the ocean with the tsunami in the first place. Concrete doesn’t get swept out to sea, but wood does.

    So let’s say that now, nine months down the line, we probably have half a million tonnes or so of the Japanese debris in the Pacific, most of which is wood.

    The area of the Pacific if about 160 million square km. (60 million square miles) The debris field might encompass half the North Pacific, call it 40 million square km (15 million sq. miles). Half a million tonnes in 40 million square km, that’s half a tonne of debris spread out over every 40 square km, or about 12 kg of debris per square km.

    That’s not a whole lot. Even if we double our estimate to be on the conservative side, that’s a few sticks of wood from some poor Japanese guy’s ex-house per square kilometre … you’ll excuse me if I don’t see the logic of putting together a team of razor-sharp EPA bureaucrats to track that.

    Finally, even if we could track every last pathetic fragment of a Japanese coat and every last smashed splinter of Japanese wood … so what? I mean, it’s not like we able going to do anything about it even if we wanted to.

    I have previously written that I thought the EPA should be reformed and not abolished. History has shown that we need something like it to keep us from dumping bad chemicals in the drinking water. But the current EPA is way off the reservation, tracking Japanese rubbish across the wide Pacific. It needs radical surgery, cut its budget by a factor of 10, set it to re-examining the environmental laws from a scientific viewpoint.

    w.

  22. I don’t understand why they just don’t let the climate modelers handle this. After all, these guys specialize in handling garbage.

    yrloc=[1400,findgen(19)*5.+1904]

    valadj=[0.,0.,0.,0.,0.,-0.1,-0.25,-0.3,0.,-0.1,0.3,0.8,1.2,1.7,2.5,2.6,2.6,2.6,2.6,2.6]*0.75
    ;fudge factor

    ;insert garbage here

  23. Willis Eschenbach says:
    ” But the current EPA is way off the reservation, tracking Japanese rubbish across the wide Pacific.”

    Absolutely no argument there. What is interesting to watch is as EPA tries to expand its reach the interagency battles that develop. NOAA and EPA seem to be circling one another on a few issues and the big one is the fuse burning between EPA and USDA. I had to chuckle at this:
    “To learn more about the tsunami debris, NOAA researchers have been working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and other partners to coordinate data collection activities” If experience is any guide-I’m sure there is a flat out turf war going on between these agencies over this issue.

    And as someone that would run a boat for hours looking for any piece of wood or floating trash in search of dolphin/mahi–mahi– give me the coordinates!

  24. Ask yourselves what all those federal workers might be doing if they were NOT engaged in the “debris study”. Having them occupied “off shore” might actually save us lots of money and grief “on shore” where they might be working, for example, on sending your indoor toilet the way of the incandescent light bulb.

  25. Pat Moffitt says:
    December 29, 2011 at 12:32 pm

    And as someone that would run a boat for hours looking for any piece of wood or floating trash in search of dolphin/mahi–mahi– give me the coordinates!

    You got that right. Funnily enough, it works that way in the Atlantic too. Many’s the time we’d run to the Gulf Stream. Just as you approach there would normally be a tide line where debris had gathered. Put out your lures and troll along the debris fields and watch the rods go down.

  26. I live on vancouver island and the debris is washing up on shores right now, and as some have commented, most is plastic containers and processed lumber that is marked with japanese writing linking it back to these areas hit by the tsunami. Funny thing about the lumber, is it originated from here as raw logs and has made its way back home, there’s a metaphor in there somewhere!
    Also a friend I know has a bud who owns a large commercial fishing boat and has been fallowing the story for the idea of savage. Rumour has it a few weeks ago picked up a large sail boat, sadly it did contain a couple of victim from the Japan disaster.

  27. “The worst-case scenario is boats and unmanageable concentrations of other heavy objects could wash ashore in sensitive areas, damage coral reefs”
    ###

    I think they mean “providing substrate for coral to build on”.

  28. Claude Harvey says:
    December 29, 2011 at 12:34 pm

    Ask yourselves what all those federal workers might be doing if they were NOT engaged in the “debris study”. Having them occupied “off shore” might actually save us lots of money and grief “on shore” where they might be working, for example, on sending your indoor toilet the way of the incandescent light bulb.
    __________________________________
    I was inclined to agree with you but on second thought, we have no assurance that they won’t still cost us money and grief just because they are working on an offshore project.
    Initially, the EPA did more good than harm, but that time has past into history and all we have now is a bunch of bureaucrats with an agenda.

  29. NOAA’s models predicted that the oil from the BP oil spill could reach North Carolina and then cross the Atlantic. So much for that.

  30. “could now impact U.S. shores”

    Impact? The debris is going to crash into the shore with an almighty bang?

    I know “impact” is replacing “affect” (though I don’t know why) but “affect” doesn’t really fit here, either.

  31. “Debris from the tsunami that devastated Japan in March could reach the United States as early as this winter, according to predictions by NOAA scientists. However, they warn there is still a large amount of uncertainty over exactly what is still floating, where it’s located, where it will go, and when it will arrive.”
    =======
    Well that narrows it down, thanks for the flash.
    Is there anything you do know ?
    Reminds me of our knowledge of satellite orbital decay rates.

  32. Pat Moffitt
    December 29, 2011 at 11:35 am

    What NOAA doesn’t want to discuss is our practice of removing all large woody debris from our surface waters has had massive negative impacts on both salmon production. So wood slamming into coral is bad but removing wood that salmon need is good. One day I’ll figure out the logic.
    ###

    Are you a salmonid ichthyologist? You sure sound like one. You have mentioned this issue with large woody debris several times. I have a keen interest in fresh water ecology, but don’t know much about salmonids. Because I now live in the northwest, I have become interested. I would like to find out more, but as I now make my living as a software engineer in the high-tech industry, I don’t have the 100s of hours to sift through all the garbage to find reliable information. In some ecosystems, woody debris provides important habitat for food organisms required for some fishes. Is this the case here?

    BTW, the logic is simple. If the policy can be used to support the agenda, then it is used. Doing anything that actually solves the problem is bad because it eliminates an issue that is needed to drive the agenda. Another one of my interest is carnivore biology. Its pretty apparent that the environmentalist have absolutely no interest in actually protecting the carnivores that they claim to care so much about.

  33. Desert Yote,
    If the moderator would be so kind to pass along my email to you I would be more than happy to send you some info so as not to hijack this thread.

    [Moderator's Note: Done. -REP]

  34. Desert Yote,
    To your point on agendas- one wonders why this from the1999 National Academies report _”Sustaining Marine Fisheries” never made the Press:
    “….a variety of political agendas and potential conflicts of interest complicate fishery management… The pressure for liberal catch quotas can be quite strong-often involving important political figures-and risk prone management often results. Even if mangers resist pressures to make risk prone decisions, the existence of a large, chronically undersatisfied fleet exacerbates monitoring, control and surveillance.” (Its not the only time the report talks about important political figures and conflicts of interest and they are basically admitting they have no control over whats really being harvested)
    This report asks a critical question that goes way beyond fisheries:
    “How should fishers and other individuals who gain economic benefits from natural resources be involved in management processes? A risk of participatory democracy in fishery management that must be avoided is the potential for the process to be captured by narrow interests.”

    It is bad beyond comprehension and controlled by a narrative that bears no resemblance to either the science or reality. And unfortunately its not just fisheries. There is simply no incentive to fix anything- quite the contrary it is the maintenance of the problem that feeds the special interests, regulatory budgets, academic grants and NGO donations. We could probably solve half our environmental problems by spending less money (cutting off perverse subsidies in everything from fisheries, agriculture, grants and water) rather than more. The Disease is simply more valuable than the cure.
    Don’t look at this as a conspiracy because its not-its simply a complex system following perverse incentives- one in which the diffuse Public interest is rarely served and environmental quality never.

  35. There were predictions that it would take at least 2.5 years for the debris to make it across the Pacific. Oops. So much for that. Sounds like there will be some good scavenging all down the left coast in the next year and for a while after.

    Some of that debris could be some pretty nice stuff. A couple of months after, Japanese authorities were still piling up safes washing ashore. They were asking survivors and relatives to see if they could identify the safes so they could get the stacks of them out of the way. Japanese, especially seniors, tend to keep cash, jewelry and other valuables in tightly sealed safes in their homes. Ones that are big enough so they’re light enough to displace more than their weight in water will float, if they’re not loaded to heavily with stuff. Might be some will make it across the Pacific.

  36. Interesting thing about debris, you never know where it will turn up.
    Friend of mine is from a Native band up on the Northwest coast. He told a story of when he was a kid, a freighter carrying clothes hit an island just off the coast near his village. Over the coming weeks, plenty of new clothes and shoes washed up. While a little waterlogged, they were still no worse for the wear! All anybody had to do to get some new threads simply had to comb the beaches. Heck of a lot cheaper then paying a hundred bucks for new shoes.

  37. “NOAA and its partners”??

    Excuse me, NOAA, who gave YOU the authority to claim that you are a business and that you have “partners”?

    This is an offensive remark from a publicly-funded organization.

    Only private companies have “partners”.

    It should, at minimum, read: “NOAA and its other taxpayer-funded scientific organizations working for the benefit of the taxpayer.”

    Chris
    Norfolk, VA, USA

  38. Obviously there are a lot of people without enough to do.

    What possible difference could any of this make to anyone?

  39. These ‘modellers’ need to be called to account for their complete garbage in-garbage out nonsense (no pun intended).

    Unless your model can produce an accurate, testable outcome. (i.e. x amt of the debris will be here in x date range) then you may as well play pin the tail on the donkey, it will probably be more accurate and cheaper.

  40. Impressively cringe-inducing photo, but where’s the polar bear? Also, something about a tree falling in a forest comes to mind.

  41. I live on Vancouver Island myself and I highly doubt the claims of “increased debris” coming from Japan. Most of the “debris” seems to be in the form of plastic drink bottles with Japanese characters on it, which can also be purchased from several stores on Vancouver Island. I’m not an expert on oceanography, but a floating plastic bottle traveling about 5000 miles in 9 months seems to be extraordinary. I also think alarmism is a great way for governments to suck extra money out of the taxpayer pocket. “Oh no. Japanese debris will kill us all…unless we get extra funding to form committees and assessment groups to monitor the situation.”

  42. Not on topic, but near. I have seen a musing about the possibility that the geologic shift caused by the earthquake may have perturbed weather patterns in the western US. We are rather dry for this time of year here in Nortern Utah. Any thoughts on that?

  43. Mark Whitney says:
    December 30, 2011 at 9:11 am

    ===============================

    Earthquakes do not affect weather. The current drought in the SW US (and a few other parts of the West) is due to negative PDO combined with La Nina.

  44. SteveSadlov
    I know that and expressed my doubts in the thread where the assertion was suggested based on just that argument. I only asked the question here to be more sure of my assumption that the slight shift in the orientation of earth’s axis was not a signigicant factor. Thanks.

  45. somewhat before the “great Japanese earthquake” there was a couple of articals in the unwashed press about a fellow at one of the oregon colleges that was tracing the movements of floating trash across the pacific. it seems as though he wanted people that saw stuff wash up on the west coast beaches to tell him about it. he particularly wanted the serial numbers off of nike shoes. he would then trace the serial numbers back through the containers that they were shipped in and by checking the numbers through container ship logs figure out just where they went into the water and when.

    perhaps getting ahold of him might give great insite to this discussion.

    C

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