Monday, March 12, 2012

Actively Seeking Radiation Poisoning

On West Coast, Looking for Flotsam of a Disaster

"SAN FRANCISCO — John Anderson, a plumber by trade and a beachcomber by passion, has been trolling the shores of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State for more than three decades, and along the way has discovered almost every kind of flotsam one can imagine: toys, refrigerators, even the occasional message in a bottle.

But in recent months, Mr. Anderson has been making a new, and somewhat surprising, find: dozens of buoys marked with Japanese writing, set adrift, he believes, by last year’s catastrophic tsunami.

“That wave wiped out whole towns, I’m thinking just about anything could show up here,” said Mr. Anderson, 58, of Forks, Wash. “I’ve heard people talking about floating safes full of Japanese money.”

The tsunami — which struck after a massive offshore earthquake last March 11 — sent a wall of water sweeping across much of Japan’s eastern coastline and generated more than 20 million tons of debris, a jumbled mass of houses, cars, boats and belongings. And while it’s not clear what percentage of that wreckage was sucked back out to sea and what remains afloat, what is certain is that some of it is slowly making its way to American shores.

Computer models run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and by researchers from the University of Hawaii predict that debris has moved eastward from the coast of Japan, driven by currents and wind. The models predict that bits of detritus will begin washing up on the northwestern Hawaiian Islands this spring and along the western coast of the United States and Canada in early 2013.

“We don’t think there is a massive debris field out there,” said Nancy Wallace, director of NOAA’s Marine Debris Program. “It will come up in little spurts here and there, a small trickle over years.”

Researchers think most of it will never reach shore and will instead get caught up and broken apart in the “great Pacific garbage patch” a swirling gyre of currents in the middle of the Pacific Ocean known to collect and recirculate floating garbage.

But beachcombers say the debris has already begun to reach land.

“I feel like Paul Revere running through town, saying ‘The British are coming!’ and no lights are coming on,” said a retired oceanographer, Curtis Ebbesmeyer. “The tsunami debris is here, but no one is listening.”


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