Japan Tsunami Debris Cleanups
Urethane foam pictures taken August 27, 2012 near Beach River on Montague Island.
- What is Tsunami Debris?
- When do we expect it to arrive?
- What is the Coastal Commission doing about it?
- Other Frequently Asked Questions about the tsunami debris
- What We Might Find and Additional Resources
- Who is supporting this program?
- Input your Tsunami Debris Cleanup Data
- JOIN A CLEANUP EVENT!
Gallery of photos from these cleanups
What is Tsunami Debris?
In this case, we are referring to debris caused by the 9.0 magnitude earthquake and resulting tsunami that hit the coast of Japan on March 11, 2011. The tsunami waves reached up to 133 feet in height and devastated an area of close to 220 square miles. Almost 16,000 people were killed due to this event, a human tragedy of massive and terrible scale. The damage also included close to 25 million tons of debris, of which 5 million tons was washed out to sea, as estimated by the Japanese Ministry of the Environment. The Japanese Government further estimates that about 30 percent of that 5 million tons of debris, or 1.5 million tons, was buoyant enough to wash away from the coast of Japan and enter the Pacific Ocean currents. A portion of the debris will end up on the U.S. west coast.
Japanese soccer ball found in Alaska. Photo credit: David Baxter
When do we expect it to arrive?
Tsunami debris has already arrived on the west coast, and will continue to do so. The original projections showed the debris arriving along the West Coast by March of 2013. However, debris started to arrive much earlier than expected. For example, in March 2011, a derelict fishing vessel floated into the waters off British Columbia and was eventually sunk by the Coast Guard. Further confirmed tsunami debris has been found at locations along the West Coast since then, including items as small as a soccer ball that belonged to a 16-year old (the ball was eventually returned) to as large as a Harley Davidson motorcycle and even large docks on the Oregon coast in June 2012 and the shores of Olympic National Park in Washington State in December 2012. The first confirmed tsunami debris to land in California was a 20-foot boat in Crescent City on April 7, 2013.
Researchers expect a new influx of floating debris every spring and early summer for the next three years or so.
What is the Coastal Commission doing about it?
As the leader of the state's largest volunteer beach cleanup programsCalifornia Coastal Cleanup Day and the year-round Adopt-A-Beach Programthe Coastal Commission is in a unique position to help mobilize volunteers to both clean up debris and to gather critical information to determine when and where debris from the tsunami is hitting California's shores.
Beginning in January, 2013, the Commission launched a new initiative, the Tsunami Debris Cleanup Project. By partnering with organizations along the coast, we will conduct at least four cleanups in each coastal county, one per quarter. The cleanups will take place at the same locations each time, and volunteers will collect data on a new data card. The data will focus specifically on those debris items that could potentially have come from the tsunami. By comparing the data at each site over the course of the cleanups, we will be able to see if there are any trends being established that could provide us with a clearer idea about the tsunami debris' location, amount, and impact.
Cleaning up Ocean Beach in San Francisco
Download the Coastal Commission's Tsunami Debris Data Card.
The Commission could not run a program like this without strong partnerships with non-profit organizations along the coast. Our partners for the Tsunami Debris Cleanups include:
- Northcoast Environmental Center
- Coastwalk California
- Pacifica Beach Coalition
- Save Our Shores
- Heal the Bay
- I Love A Clean San Diego
If the posted event times don't work for you, or you'd like to start your own cleanups, the Coastal Commission can help! We can provide supplies, guidance, and recognition. Please contact Shannon Waters at Shannon.Waters@coastal.ca.gov or Eben Schwartz at Eben.Schwartz@coastal.ca.gov for more information.
Other Frequently Asked Questions about the Tsunami Debris
|Why can't we find the debris out in the ocean and stop it before it reaches shore?|
As much as we would love to be able to capture debris out at sea, it is a common misconception that there are
giant patches of floating debris in the Pacific. In fact, the tsunami debris dispersed rapidlywithin one month,
the debris field was no longer visible by overflightso it is likely to have spread out over hundreds if not
thousands of miles of ocean, making observation, much less capture, of the debris next to impossible. In addition,
great uncertainty remains as to how much of the debris from the tsunami remains afloat, and how much more of it may
impact the West Coast of the United States. Ocean currents are difficult to map and predict, as they shift with
weather and season. Due to this, predictions are not reliable and in fact, debris from the tsunami began to arrive
at locations along the West Coast well before it was expected.
This is true for non-tsunami-related debris as well. Much of the debris in the Pacificeven that located in the area known as the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch"has broken down into small bits that are too small to see with the naked eye, even from as close as the deck of a boat. It is also widely dispersed, and even at various depths in the ocean. So removal of this debris would be extremely difficult and enormously expensive.
|How do we know it's Tsunami Debris and not debris that was already in the ocean?|
Most tsunami debris will be difficult to identify as having definitively come from the tsunami. NOAA and the
Japanese Government use positive identifiers such as Vessel Identification Numbers or ownership information to trace
debris back to the area affected by the tsunami. But the vast majority of the debris will not have such easily
identifiable markings. Debris with Japanese or other Asian characters on it regularly washes up on California's
shores every year, so definitively tracing back any individual piece of debris to the tsunami will be difficult.
That is why the Coastal Commission is collecting data on potential tsunami debris at multiple locations throughout
the year. If we can establish an upward trend in this type of debris at any location(s) along the coast, then we
can make a strong case that tsunami debris is indeed arriving at that location, even if positive identifiers are not present.
|Will the Tsunami Debris be dangerous?|
There is certainly the danger that there will be more hazardous waste washing up on our shores, as the tsunami washed away entire villages and all of the potentially hazardous waste that would be associated with them. For example, there's a real potential for an increase in kerosene canisters on our beaches, as the area that was affected in Japan was known for using kerosene to heat their homes. Emergency responders at CalEMA are ready to respond to any suspicious item that is found during any of our beach cleanups, and our volunteers are cautioned not to pick up anything that might be a danger.
To wildlife, however, the tsunami debris poses a different set of dangers. Marine debris already poses a significant threat to the marine wildlife of the Pacific. Any increase in the amount of that debris would naturally increase the potential harm.
As our friends at Ocean Conservancy explain: "Debris washing ashore around the Northwest Hawaiian Islands could damage reefs, introduce invasive species and impact the Laysan and black-footed albatross, Hawaiian monk seal, green sea turtle, and other threatened and endangered species. Derelict fishing gear could threaten seabirds and migratory Pacific species like bluefin tuna, green and leatherback sea turtles, mako and blue sharks, and whales that use North Pacific waters to forage, breed and migrate."
From Ocean Conservancy's website: www.oceanconservancy.org/our-work/marine-debris/tsunami-debris-101.html
|Will the Tsunami Debris be Radioactive?|
The tsunami washed debris out to the ocean days before the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant released radioactive waters
to the ocean off Japan, so it is considered highly unlikely that any of the debris that washes up in California will be
radioactive. This has been confirmed by on-the-ground testingevery item that has been proven to come from the area
affected by the tsunami has been tested, and none of them has shown elevated levels of radioactivity. Nevertheless, this
is an issue about which we remain vigilant. Again, with help from CalEMA, we will have qualified emergency responders
ready to help if our volunteers come across anything they suspect to be dangerous.
|What about Threats from Invasive Species?|
Invasive species were not considered a threat from this event until the dock washed up in Newport, Oregon encrusted with close to 100 different species
on it. Among them were several that were on Oregon's
"Most Watched" list for highly invasive species. Scientists did not expect coastal species from Japan to
be able to survive the long cross of the Pacific through mostly pelagic (open-ocean) waters. Similarly,
they do not expect pelagic species that attach themselves to debris to be able to survive in near-coastal
Given the organisms found on the pier in Oregon, the greatest risk for bringing aquatic invasive species is from debris items that were already in the water in the near-coastal environment, such as piers, other marine infrastructure and, to a lesser extent, boats and other vessels. Volunteers are encouraged to bag these items if possible and throw them away as they normally would. If they are too large for removal, contact your local emergency management agency, usually your police, fire, or hazardous materials department.
|What can we do about this problem?|
The tsunami was a one-time natural disaster that added a huge amount of debris to our shared ocean.
But the debris that was washed out to sea is a drop in the bucket compared to the amount of debris
we add to the ocean each and every year through the production and consumption of disposable goods.
While there is nothing we can do to stop tsunamis from occurring, there is a lot we can do every day
to reduce the amount of "potential" marine debris that we are creating.
What We Might Find and Additional Resources
- Tsunami Debris on-line survey for data entry
- Ocean Conservancy - Tsunami Debris Field Guide
- NOAA Tsunami Marine Debris Guidelines
- NOAA Japan Tsunami Marine Debris web page
- Japan Tsunami Marine Debris Joint Information Center