Despite the nearly eight thousand miles that separate the two countries, the reverberations of Japan’s triple catastrophe on March 11th have not gone unfelt in the United States. Recently, a fact lost in the aftermath of the disaster has gained new precedence: that millions of tons of debris washed away from Japan’s east coast, estimated to be between five and twenty million tons, is in the process of crossing the Pacific Ocean and is destined to arrive at the U.S. as early as 2013. This material includes houses, furniture, and most horrifyingly, possible bodies swept away by the power of the waves. Immediately following the catastrophe, researchers Nikolai Maximenko and Jan Hafner at the University of Hawaii at Manoa began to track the path of the debris using then-untested computer software that predicted the movements of the material based on knowledge of ocean currents. For the first month, their results were confirmed by satellite images from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). But then, the rubble pile spread too thinly to be seen, and its whereabouts became unknown.
A little over a month ago, though, a Russian ship once again spotted the debris. After confirming the origin of the material by pulling a fishing boat out of the ocean that had “Fukushima” painted on the side in Japanese characters, they shared their find after reaching port on October 8th. Only in the last few days has the information gone public.
Maximenko and Hafner confirmed that the material was in approximately the spot that their computer program predicted it would be, except that it had moved more quickly and spread more widely than they had anticipated. A month after the tsunami, it was spread over five hundred miles; today, estimates put its length between one and two thousand.
Caught in an ocean current called “the North Pacific Gyre,” the rubble moves between five and ten miles per day. Experts have separated the material into three main categories: the lightest floating objects, such as Styrofoam and wood; items of medium floatability, like fishing nets and gear; and the heaviest items, including shoes, and even entire furniture sets. Each wave of items is expected to reach subsequent coastlines approximately a year apart, beginning with Hawaii before arriving at the west coast of the United States and Canada.
This news has been met with mixed emotions. Researchers at the NOAA, for one, are pleased to have finally acquired concrete information regarding the material’s location. That it has spread out to twice its original length in the last six months also means that no shoreline will receive the brunt of the rubble’s arrival all at once, but rather over long spaces of time and distance, thereby lessening the burden the material will inevitably bring.
However, the majority of the voices speaking up over this issue have been raised in consternation, and with good reason. Even though the true effects of this floating mass are still several years off, once it begins, predictions estimate that increased amounts of rubble could arrive on our shorelines for as many as six years. In the past, tsunamis and other natural disasters have for the most part limited their damage to a concentrated area. Even the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, triggered by one of the largest recorded earthquakes, only swept the land’s ravaged material out a short ways before returning it to the same shoreline. This mass migration of rubble across half of the globe, then, is unprecedented.
Fortunately, a different concern, that the debris contains radioactive material from the Fukushima nuclear power plant, is unfounded. As the tsunami hit and receded before the power plant went into meltdown, the chance that the rubble is radioactive is next to zero.
Despite this small comfort, one of the foremost questions in people’s minds is upon whom the burden of clean-up will fall and what methods will be used to remove the debris once it arrives. As of yet, the U.S. government seems relatively unconcerned with the matter, but a coalition has been formed between the NOAA, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Coast Guard, and several other organizations to devise a long-term plan to deal with the problem. Loosely, they have divided up the main, predicted effects of the debris so that the Coast Guard will handle shipping and navigation issues; the EPA, the biochemical and hazardous waste material; and the NOAA, the charting of its course and the protection of coral reefs. The suggestion of drawing on Japanese resources to aid clean-up efforts, an idea presented by many individuals on online forums, does not seem to be an option of the governmental drawing board.
Though preparations are underway, a remaining concern is how the debris will affect coastal, oceanic environments. Hawaii is particularly worried over its coral reefs and monk seals, whose environment is already in fragile condition.
Fortunately, especially as they are to receive the first wave of the material, Hawaii has recently implemented several new programs to deal with oceanic waste, and not just that arriving from Japan. One, entitled the “Hawaii Marine Debris Action Plan” (HI-MDAP) and implemented in 2010, is the first of its kind in the country. Concentrating on the four areas of solid waste at sea, land-based debris, abandoned vessels, and backlog of marine debris, the plan generally aims to reduce the large amounts of ocean waste that find their way to the state every year. One of the ways this is being done is through their “Nets-to-Energy” program. Instead of transporting the dozens of tons of nets that end up on their coastlines every year to landfills, the nets are cut into small pieces and burned. The steam produced from the process is then used to power a turbine that creates usable energy. According to the program description, this method has produced enough energy annually since 2002 to power nearly three hundred and fifty homes year-round.
For at least one state, then, the mass amounts of debris on a set course from Japan could potentially be not an obstacle, but an opportunity. If Hawaii implements methods to similarly convert even some other types of waste material into usable energy, if not all, not only will they keep their landfills from becoming more over-crowded, but they could lead the way in reversing the amount of all oceanic waste, a problem which researchers and oceanographers admit has been growing more dire in recent years.
It appears, then, that despite the growing volume of news stations reporting on the thousand-mile wide sea of debris, U.S. citizens should follow the government’s lead in not unduly worrying about its arrival. Despite its inconvenience, there is little true danger that will result from the rubble. In the next two to three years, then, instead of using the time agonizing over what will happen when it appears, people should continue to work steadily down the path upon which Hawaii has set us to turn this apparent impediment into an asset.