‘Unprecedented’ tsunami debris clean-up operation begins on Alaskan beaches… and there’s still 1.5 million tons still to arrive

Julian Gavaghan
Wed, 23 May 2012 08:53 CDT
An ‘unprecedented’ clean-up operation has been launched in Alaska after it became swamped by debris from last year’s devastating Japanese tsunami.

Workers plan to spend 12 days clearing the beach on Montague Island, which is covered in items including balls, buoys, beer crates, Styrofoam and lunch boxes.

And they can expect to repeat this process in the future because an estimated 1.5million tons of flotsam and jetsam is yet complete the 3,500-mile journey to Alaska and elsewhere in North America.

Montague, which is the largest uninhabited U.S. island and lies 120 miles southeast of state capital Anchorage, is likely to receive another equally large quantity by the time the year has ended.

‘The debris found on initial surveys of the island showed an absolutely unprecedented amount of buoys, Styrofoam and other high floating debris, Patrick Chandler of the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies told Fox News.

So far the wreckage floating away from Asia has included only the odd item – including the bizarre find of a Harley-Davidson and a football that was later reunited with its owner back in Japan.

But much bigger quantities are set to arrive thick and fast in the coming months as scientists are now saying the debris will cross the Pacific Ocean far sooner than previously thought.

The latest computer models estimate that a vast collection of debris – measuring 4,000 miles across at its longest – will start washing up this October and continue to do so into late 2013.

A recent satellite image from NASA’s Earth observatory shows the marauding mass sprawled across the ocean’s surface.

Around 4.8million tonnes – including parts of houses, factories, cars and ships – were pulled into the ocean when the earthquake and subsequent tsunami struck Japan in March last year.

While heavy items sank, at least 1.5million tonnes of lighter material such as buoys, oil drums and furniture were carried off by tides and the wind on a 4,500-mile journey to North America.

Projections made earlier this year by the International Pacific Research Centre (IPRC), in Honolulu, Hawaii, suggested most of the detritus would begin arriving between March 2013 and March 2014.

But predictions from the Japanese government and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has now pushed that date forward to October this year, according to a report in The Guardian. Indeed, many lighter objects began reaching land as early as last November.

Last month, a Japanese teenager who lost his home in last year’s devastating tsunami spoke of his delight after his football washed up on a remote Alaskan beach 3,500 miles from Japan.

Misaki Murakami, 16, came forward to reveal that he was the owner of the ball discovered by American radar technician David Baxter on Middleton Island.

Mr Baxter, who also found a volleyball while out beachcombing, now plans to travel with his wife Yumi across the Pacific to return the ball.

And yesterday, the Japanese owner of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle said its discovery on a remote beach on the West Coast of British Columbia last week was a miracle.

The owner, Ikuo Yokoyama, a 29-year-old resident of the town of Yamamoto, in Miyagi Prefecture, was tracked down by a Harley-Davidson representative in Japan who saw the story, first reported by CBC News, the broadcaster reported today.

Peter Mark, was combing the beach on Haida Gwaii islands when he made the discovery.

A clearer picture of the debris is not expected to emerge before June or July when two privately-funded expeditions are due to travel into the north Pacific.

Washington state officials, which last week released posters advising residents what may arrive on their beaches, say it is highly unlikely any human remains will be found.

Washington, Oregon, British Columbia and Alaska will get much of it, while most of California will be protected by currents pushing objects back out to sea, according to The Guardian. Hawaii, however, is in line for several deposits.

The US navy and coastguard will be monitoring the debris over fears it could pose a danger to shipping.

But for anyone worried that they may wake one day to a tsunami of trash heading towards them, Jan Hafner, of the IPRC, has these words of reassurances.

‘Most people probably think there is a huge pile of debris moving across the ocean like a carpet. But it is very sparse, very patchy.’

More pictures here.


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