Tsunami debris is late, but it’s still on its way

An onslaught of debris believed to be from the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan has yet to hit Washington beaches as predicted, but that doesn’t mean it’s not coming, according to one local expert.

A field of junk in the Pacific Ocean was forecast to start hitting the coast in October, but it didn’t happen — at least not on a large scale.

Other than a collection of rubbish that washed up in Willapa Bay on the Washington coast in recent months, reports have been spotty, said Linda Kent, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Ecology.

“It’s been pretty quiet since July and August,” she said.

Curt Ebbesmeyer of Seattle, a retired University of Washington oceanographer who has been tracking the trash, was one of those predicting an October onslaught.

He’s not sure why it didn’t materialize, but says the mass is still not far away and could make landfall within a few weeks.

“It didn’t go away because we haven’t seen it,” he said. “This quiet is a little bit ominous.”

The Washington coast is expected to get most of the debris, but some of it could be funneled to inland waters through the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Once it starts coming ashore, it could continue to turn up on beaches for more than a year.

The debris field — stretching roughly 2,000 miles across the ocean and 500 miles from north to south, according to Ebbesmeyer — is only about 400 miles offshore. Two months ago, it was about 800 miles away, he said.

It’s traveling about 10 miles a day, Ebbesmeyer said, meaning it could hit the coast around mid-December, depending on weather and currents.

Government officials are more cautious in their assessments.

“We don’t know when it’s going to come or how much,” Kent said.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration also predicted beach trash would increase in October, though not necessarily on a large scale. Officals now say an increase is still likely in coming months but back away from saying it will be a large quantity.

“We anticipate that throughout the winter of 2012-2013, seasonal changes in north Pacific winds and currents will cause marine debris of mixed types to wash ashore on western coastlines of North America,” said Keeley Belva, a spokeswoman for the agency in Washington, D.C., in an email. “However, our data does not show any flotilla or mass of debris.”

Still, a map on the NOAA marine debris website describes a roughly circular area northeast of Hawaii about 1,000 miles across as the “highest concentration of particles.” The area appears closer to the West Coast than when shown on NOAA’s map two months ago.

In late 2011 and early 2012, the West Coast was peppered with a higher-than-usual number of small items, especially large fishing floats, some plastic and some Styrofoam.

Ebbesmeyer contends this is almost certainly from the tsunami. Officials say it’s possible, but it’s also very difficult to trace any one item to the event.

As of Thursday,NOAA received 1,406 official debris reports from California to Alaska, and only 15 items have been definitively traced to the tsunami, Belva said. Three of these were found in Washington, all on the coast, including a large dock that washed ashore at Cape Disappointment in June.

Three of the discoveries, unconfirmed as tsunami-related, were on Whidbey Island and one on Camano Island, according to a NOAA map. No further details on those items were available from NOAA.

The 9,000 pounds of trash at Willapa Bay contained many pieces of large, broken-up Styrofoam, which is unusual, Kent said. There were some items with Japanese writing on them, but others had Chinese writing, she said.

The trash didn’t hit all at once, but had been accumulating and hadn’t been picked up, she said. A state Department of Natural Resources crew was out working to eradicate spartina, an invasive weed, and received authorization to pick up the debris, Kent said.

More than $600,000 has been budgeted at the federal level for tsunami debris cleanup and another $600,000 set aside by the state. The state also has received a separate $50,000 grant from NOAA, Kent said.

Additionally, the Japanese government in September donated $6 million to the United States and Canadian governments to go toward the cleanup, according to published reports. Of this total, $5 million will go to the U.S.

It’s not clear how the money will be used in Washington, Kent said.

“It would be a government to government thing at the federal level and it would trickle down to us,” she said.

The state will send crews to collect potentially hazardous items or bulky pieces of debris such as boats. For smaller flotsam, though, much of the responsibility for cleanup might fall to local volunteer groups, Kent said.

Ebbesmeyer agrees with NOAA that winter winds and currents will bring more flotsam in the coming months.

“One thing’s for certain,” he said. “It’s still out there.”

Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439; sheets@heraldnet.com.

More info

What should I do if I find an item?

Use common sense. If you don’t know what an item is, don’t touch it. If it appears hazardous, contact authorities. To report an item, or to ask about cleanup efforts, call 1-855-WACOAST (1-855-922-6278). Items also may be reported to DisasterDebris@noaa.gov

Where can I go for more information?

A website has been set up by several agencies as a central source of information on tsunami debris.

http://disasterdebris.wordpress.com/

Another website is operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration:

http://marinedebris.noaa.gov/

Calling all beachcombers

Debris sightings also may be sent to oceanographer Curt Ebbesmeyer at curtisebbesmeyer@comcast.net.

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