Japanese scientists estimate that 22.53 million tons of debris was produced in the three prefectures — Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima — most affected by the earthquake and tsunami. NOAA estimated about 5 million tons of debris went into the ocean. Most stayed on land, and a fair proportion pulled out to sea sunk rapidly. In the weeks after, satellite imagery showed a massive debris field floating out to sea. Most of the homes, vehicles and appliances quickly broke up and sank close to shore, Although 70 percent of the 5 million tons of debris is thought to have sunk quickly, there is an estimated 1.5 million tons still dispersed across the Pacific, much of it now floating somewhere northeast of Hawaii. [Source: BBC, Los Angeles Times]

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Debris in the Sea

According to Japan's Environment Ministry, the total amount of debris resulting from the March 11, 2011, disaster is estimated at 18.11 million tons. About 4.8 million tons of additional debris is believed to have been washed out to sea. About 70 percent of drifting debris consists of things like cars and cargo containers. Most debris is believed to have sunk off the coast of the Tohoku region. However, the remaining 30 percent, or about 1.54 million tons, became floating debris, including collapsed houses and wood from disaster-prevention forests. These articles have been drifting in the Pacific Ocean since the disaster. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, August 19, 2012]

More than two weeks after the earthquake and tsunami, Chico Harlan wrote in the Washington Post , Japan’s northeastern coastline is a several-hundred-mile cleanup job. Miyagi prefecture alone has 15 million to 18 million tons of debris. That garbage — sorted and stacked along roads, bobbing in rivers, and twisted and strewn into crevasses — stands as a hot, rotting impediment, making thoughts about the future seem impractical and obscene. In the riverfront areas of industrial Ishinomaki, flattened by the tsunami, yellow Komatsu excavators arrive at a property only if the owners have requested that it be cleared out. In farther-flung towns, such as Shirahama, the damage is so great that government officials assume nothing can be salvaged. But they hold off on debris removal until Japan’s Self-Defense Forces have combed the area, searching for bodies.” [Source: Chico Harlan, Washington Post March 31, 2011]


Debris from the Tsunami in the Pacific Ocean

Japan's National Institute for Environmental Studies estimates that about 3 million tons of debris, including entire houses, cars and boats, was washed out to sea by the March disaster. Wreckage from northeastern Japan, including the remains of houses and fishing boats, has been found drifting over a wide swath of the Pacific Ocean. The Environment Ministry says concerns are mounting in Japan and abroad about the impact the debris may have on the environment and on maritime traffic safety. Nicholas Mallos, conservation biologist and marine debris specialist for the Ocean Conservancy, said fishing gear could harm wildlife, such as endangered Hawaiian monk seals, if it washes up on coral reefs or beaches. "The major question is how much of that material has sank and how much of that remains afloat or still in the water column," Mallos said. [Source: October 24, 2011]

AP reportedly: :Scientists say, wind and ocean currents eventually will push some of the massive debris from Japan’s tsunami and earthquake onto the shores of the U.S. West Coast. The floating debris will likely be carried by currents off of Japan toward Washington, Oregon and California before turning toward Hawaii and back again toward Asia, circulating in what is known as the North Pacific gyre, said Curt Ebbesmeyer, a Seattle oceanographer who has spent decades tracking flotsam.” “If you put a major city through a trash grinder and sprinkle it on the water, that’s what you’re dealing with,” he said. [Source: AP, March 2011]

“Only a small portion of that debris will wash ashore, and how fast it gets there and where it lands depends on buoyancy, material and other factors. Fishing vessels or items that poke out of the water and are more likely influenced by wind may show up in a year, while items like lumber pieces, survey stakes and household items may take two to three years, he said.

Computer models created by the University of Hawaii indicate the debris is spread far apart across thousands of miles from the eastern coast of Japan to an area some 1,000 miles north of the Hawaiian Islands. "The debris field is largely dispersed over a large area. And because of that dispersion, we can no longer rely on satellite imagery to track the debris," Mallos said.

Nikolai Maximenko, senior researcher at the University of Hawaii's International Pacific Research Center, says a huge amount of debris was spotted by a Russian training ship heading for Vladivostok from Hawaii in late September 2011. The debris was found in a wide area in the northern Pacific Ocean about 3,200 kilometers east of Japan and about 900 kilometers west of the Midway Islands. Japanese fishing boats, fishing nets, housing materials, plastic products, and appliances such as television sets and refrigerators form part of the debris. A piece of a demolished fishing boat clearly shows the word "Fukushima" written in Japanese. [Source: October 16, 2011]

A half-dozen large buoys suspected to be from Japanese oyster farms were found in Alaska in late 2011. r. Maximenko estimates only one to 5 percent of the 1 million to 2 million tons of debris still in the ocean as of March 2012 may reach Hawaii, Alaska, Oregon and Washington and British Columbia.It's unclear whether items like refrigerators will make it across because there's little precedent for such things in the ocean. [Source:Audrey Mcavoy, AP February 28, 2012]

Tracking the Debris From Japan’s Tsunami

The New York Times reported: The Sea Dragon, a research vessel, will sail from the Marshall Islands to Japan to Hawaii to study the dispersal of debris swept into the sea by Japan's March 11 tsunami The 7,000-mile research voyage is being organized by the 5 Gyres Institute and the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, two nonprofit groups that campaign against plastic pollution, in collaboration with Pangaea Exploration, which operates the Sea Dragon expedition vessel. The boat will sail from the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands to Japan and then on to Hawaii. [Source: Bettina Wassener, New York Times October 12, 2011]

Nine crew spaces are available on the Sea Dragon for each of the two legs of the voyage, at a cost of $13,500 per person for the first leg and $15,500 for the second, to help finance the expedition. The scientists’ goal is not just to get a clearer idea of the sheer amount of trash in the ocean and the speed at which it is dispersing, but also to monitor how quickly the debris is being colonized by marine life and whether it is transporting invasive species, Marcus Eriksen, the expedition leader, said by phone from Los Angeles. This could help them assess whether the debris could ultimately travel as far as the West Coast, Mr. Eriksen said. For now, Hawaii is expected to bear the brunt of the traveling debris.

Even if it does not journey as far as the West Coast, the debris will not simply disappear. Items made of non-decomposing materials like plastic crates, building insulation, furniture and everyday household items — will keep traveling the oceans, probably for years, joining the mass of plastic trash that has been accumulating there for more than a half century.

In essence, as devastating as it was, the March 11 tsunami affords a unique opportunity for studying the phenomenon of marine pollution. After all, rarely are such huge amounts of debris swept simultaneously into the ocean from a single location.

Japanese Tsunami Ghost Ship Sunk Off Alaska

Reporting from a U.S. Coast Guard C-130 cargo plane over the Gulf of Alaska, Mark Thiessen of Associated Press wrote: A U.S. Coast Guard cutter poured cannon fire into a Japanese ghost ship that had been drifting since the 2011 tsunami, sinking the vessel in the Gulf of Alaska and eliminating the hazard it posed to shipping and the coastline. The cutter's guns tore holes in the 164-foot Ryou-Un Maru, ending the abandoned vessel's long, lonely journey across the Pacific. As the crew pummeled the ship, it burst into flames and began taking on water, officials said. [Source: Mark Thiessen, Associated Press, April 7, 2012]

A huge column of smoke could be seen over the gulf as a Coast Guard C-130 cargo plane, sent to observe the sinking, dropped a buoy to monitor for any possible pollution. The Coast Guard warned mariners to stay away, and aviation authorities did the same for pilots. In about four hours, the ship, its hull pockmarked with holes, vanished into the water, said Chief Petty Officer Kip Wadlow in Juneau. It sank into waters more than 6,000 feet deep, about 180 miles from land, the Coast Guard said.

Officials decided to sink the ship rather than risk the chance of it running aground or endangering other vessels in the busy shipping lanes between North America and Asia. The ship had no lights or communications system, and its tank was able to carry more than 2,000 gallons of diesel fuel. Officials, however, didn't know how much fuel, if any, was aboard. A light sheen and some debris were visible as the vessel sunk. Officials expect the sheen to quickly dissipate.

The ship was at Hokkaido, Japan, and destined for scrapping when a magnitude-9.0 earthquake that struck the country in March 2011 triggered a tsunami. The waves dislodged the vessel and set it adrift The boat did not have any cargo aboard, Coast Guard spokesman Paul Webb said. He said he didn't know who owned the Ryou-Un Maru, which had been traveling about 1 mph in recent days.

As the Coast Guard was readying to fire on the vessel, a Canadian fishing vessel, the 62-foot Bernice C, claimed salvage rights over the ghost ship in international waters. Plans to sink it were halted so the Canadian crew could have a chance to take the stricken ship. A Canadian official with knowledge of the situation told The Associated Press that the Bernice C was unable to tow it. The Canadian boat left and, once it was about 6 miles from the Japanese vessel, the Coast Guard began to fire, first with 25 mm shells, then a few hours later with ammunition twice that size.

Debris Starts Floating Up on the U.S. West Coast in May 2012

In May 2012 Tony Barboza wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Fishing floats, soccer balls, fuel tanks and crewless fishing vessels set adrift by the tsunami and pushed thousands of miles across the ocean by currents and winds are already arriving on American shores. From Alaska to Northern California, beachcombers are reporting a growing influx of aerosol cans, fishing floats and plastic fuel cans swept from Japan. [Source: Tony Barboza, Los Angeles Times, May 26, 2012]

“There was a soccer ball with Japanese writing discovered in March on a remote Alaskan island and traced to a 16-year-old boy in Japan." Another soccer ball, from the Otsuchi Soccer Club in Japan, was found in Washington state's Olympic National Park. In early April 2012, "the U.S. Coast Guard had to use explosives to sink a so-called ghost ship — a 164-foot Japanese fishing vessel drifting through the Gulf of Alaska. A corroded Harley-Davidson motorcycle packed in a container washed up on a Canadian island. The owner, located through the bike's license plate number, had lost three family members in the tsunami, Japanese media reported. Although currents along the California coast may deflect much of the debris back toward Hawaii, environmental groups as far south as San Diego are monitoring their shores just in case. None of the debris is considered radioactive since it was dragged to sea before the nuclear disaster.

“Retired Seattle oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer, who compiles reports from West Coast beachcombers on his blog, told the Los Angeles Times that he has tallied at least 500 foam and plastic floats and fuel cans that have shown up from Japan between October 2011 and May 2012. He said that's roughly 167 times the normal rate."They all started arriving at once from Kodiak, Alaska, to Northern California, and that's very indicative of a disaster," he said. Ebbesmeyer expects the amount of debris to increase dramatically this fall with the arrival of floating refrigerators, car wheels, bath toys and shoes — items with a remarkable ability to float long distances. With that possibility in mind, the state of Washington has distributed fliers with instructions on how to handle everything from canisters of insecticide to personal possessions. "It is extremely unlikely any human remains from the tsunami will reach the United States," the flier reads. But if they do, it advises, call 911.

“As the capsized boats, shipping containers and fuel drums move closer to North America, the U.S. government has asked freighters, fishermen and the U.S. Coast Guard to report anything out of the ordinary. But the Pacific Ocean is so vast and the debris so widely scattered that experts say it might not be possible to see more than one piece at a time. Experts say only a small fraction of the debris — perhaps 5 percent — will make it to the West Coast, where it may wash up intermittently over the course of a year before being pulled back toward Hawaii. Much of the material — timber and furniture, for instance — may break down before reaching U.S. shores, but fishing nets, buoys, floats and plastics may be float for months without being corroded by the salt water and waves. The rest is eventually to join the great concentration of debris already circling endlessly in a vast, slow-moving ocean vortex known as the North Pacific Gyre.

The Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “A large amount of debris is expected to wash ashore on the U.S. West Coast in October 2012 and later, according to the Environment Ministry's calculation based on data collected from satellite images and ocean currents. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, August 19, 2012]

Dock Floats from Japan to Oregon

In June 2012 the BBC reported a huge dock torn from a Japanese port by the 2011 tsunami washed up 8,050km (5,000 miles) away on the US West Coast after crossing the Pacific. The 165-tonne structure made of concrete, metal and tyres, and studded with starfish and barnacles, arrived on a beach south-west of Portland, Oregon. It has tested negative for radiation, but scientists say a host of invasive marine species may have hitched a ride. [Source: BBC, June 7, 2012]

“A plaque on the 20-meter-long structure, which was first mistaken for a barge, shows it came from the port of Misawa in northern Japan. It has taken 15 months to drift across the Pacific to Agate beach since the earthquake and resulting tsunami shook it loose. Two other docks from the same port are still missing.

“The dock was sawed and cut into parts small enough to be carried. This was done at some expense with local governments footing the bill. Experts expect a surge of debris, with the bulk of it due in the winter. There are concerns that something as big as a dock could pose a danger to ships at sea. There are also worries about the expense and burden on local governments of removing large amount debris.

“A starfish native to Japan was among the marine life still clinging to the structure. John Chapman, a research scientist at Oregon State University said hundreds of other organisms, such as tiny crabs and algae, posed a "very clear threat". "It's exactly like saying you threw a bowling ball into a china shop. It's going to break something. But will it be valuable or cheap glass? It's incredibly difficult to predict what will happen next.”

Japanese Boat First Confirmed Tsunami Debris in California

In April 2013, a 20-foot fishing boat washed up in Crescent City and was confirmed to be the first piece of debris from the 2011 Japan tsunami to officially land on California shores. Kate Mather wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “After characters on the side of the barnacle-covered boat were roughly translated to say "Takata High School" — a school in Rikuzentakata, Japan — a Humboldt State University professor tracked down the Japanese city's Facebook page and posted photos of the skiff, the Times-Standard reported. A teacher was quickly able to confirm the boat belonged to the school, which the newspaper said lost students and instructors and was destroyed by the tsunami. [Source: Kate Mather, Los Angeles Times, April 26, 2013]

A Rikuzentakata spokeswoman told the Times-Standard the city was "giddy" to hear the boat had been found. "Just to know it made it, just to know it made it across the Pacific, that's just one of these things in life that no one is prepared for -- but in the best possible way," Amya Miller said. "That something made it across the ocean is beautiful. It's absolutely beautiful."

Japan Sends $5 Million to U.S. for Debris Disposal

In December 2012, Jiji Press reported: “The government has decided at a Cabinet meeting to extend 5 million dollars to the United States for the disposal of disaster debris washing up on its West Coast. According to the Environment Ministry, the amount of debris from the March 2011 disaster washing ashore on the North American coast is likely to increase around December. [Source: Jiji Press, December 2, 2012]

There is a lack of an international agreement on who is responsible for disposing of debris released into the sea. Experts have also said harmful substances mixed with debris will likely damage the marine environment. Members of nongovernmental organizations both in Japan and the United States held a meeting in Oregon in August 2012. Azusa Kojima, secretary general of the Japan Environmental Action Network, an environmental nongovernmental organization, told the Yomiuri Shimbun, "What the U.S. side wanted most was concrete information about the debris--how much and what kind will be washed ashore and which areas or coastlines in Oregon it is projected to land on." [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, August 19, 2012]

To deal with drifting debris, an official at the Cabinet Office's Secretariat of the Headquarters for Ocean Policy said: "No international rules [about drifting debris] exist and it's become the custom that a country in which debris drifts ashore bears the costs of clearing it. However, it's difficult to deal with the situation this time as there's no precedent for such a large amount of drifting objects being washed ashore.” The Oregon state government paid the demolition cost of the floating pier in Oregon, which was about 84,000 dollars.

Threats to the Sea by Tsunami Debris and Creatures That Hitched a Ride on It

There is little danger of radioactive contamination from the debris, however, Tokai University Prof. Masahisa Kubota, an expert on marine physics, told the Yomiuri Shimbun, "Plastic rubbish contained in debris will seriously damage the environment." According to Kubota, plastic materials made from petroleum are prone to absorbing toxic chemicals in seawater. If birds and fish eat plastic broken into small pieces by waves, they will eventually carry the potentially contaminated substances into the bodies of other creatures throughout the food chain. "The only way to prevent this is to collect as much debris as possible," he said.

There are also concerns about the debris bringing alien creatures to U.S. On the 20-meter-long pier swept away by the tsunami from Misawa, Aomori Prefecture to a beach near Newport, Oregon, Yoko Inoue wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun, “Locals who flocked to see the unexpected arrival were shocked not only by the immense size of the pier but also by the many species that had hitched a ride, which included wakame seaweed, sea chestnuts, crabs, sea anemones, starfish and oysters. In total, scientists from Oregon State University's Hatfield Marine Science Center counted more than 90 species. [Source: Yoko Inoue, Yomiuri Shimbun, September 4, 2012]

U.S. scientists had anticipated the arrival of a certain amount of debris from Japan, but the diversity and sheer number of marine creatures on the pier far exceeded expectations. Among the new arrivals from Japan, wakame seaweed and the crab species are highly reproductive, more so than Oregon's indigenous varieties, and are considered invasive species that could have a major impact on local ecosystems. Locals tried to destroy all the specimens on the pier with blowtorches and other means.Oregon State University Assistant Prof. Samuel Chan, an expert on marine ecosystems, said the high quality of the pier's construction allowed such a large number of creatures to survive inside for 15 months.Chan said if the pier had entered a nearby bay, its environmental impact could have been severe. Since bays are closed water systems largely unaffected by sea currents, wakame and other seaweed species could have easily established themselves, posing a considerable threat to domestic U.S. seaweeds.

Live Fish Found in U.S. on Boat Cast Adrift by the Japanese Tsunami

Six live fish—a kind of parrotfish— was found stowed away in a water-filled bait box aboard a 20-foot Japanese boat that washed up on the Long Beach Peninsula in southwestern Washington. Kim Murphy wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Researchers had already seen live crabs, sea stars and algae clinging to parts of the estimated 1.5 million tons of debris unleashed by the March 2011 tsunami, but they had never encountered live fish that drifted on their own from Asia, said John Chapman, who specializes in aquatic biological invasions at Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Science Center. “This comes out there on the far end of the bell curve, I think,” Chapman told the Los Angeles Times. “We know that it does happen that things disperse like that, but it’s on a million-year scale, not within a century or anything like that.” [Source: Kim Murphy, Los Angeles Times. April 6, 2013]

Five of the fish were euthanized to prevent the introduction of a new invasive species along the West Coast; the other is on display at the Seaside Aquarium in Seaside, Ore. Aquarium curator Keith Chandler said he was called to City Hall in nearby Long Beach, Wash., not long after the boat washed up in late March and shown the surviving fish -- known popularly as striped beakfish or a barred parrotfish -- swimming in a bucket. “They didn’t want to let this fish go, and they didn’t want to let it die. They didn’t know what to do with it,” Chandler said in an interview. “So we decided to put it on display, where people can take a look at this long-distance traveler.”

The semitropical, reef-dwelling fish is a popular food item in Japan. Chapman said it’s not clear how the fish made it across the ocean. Certainly they weren’t trapped in the bait box the whole time, he said. More likely, the small, dinghy-like boat was partially submerged for most of the voyage, and the fish swam in and out of the box for shelter. “They likely lived associated with the boat for two years,” he said. That raises the question of how many other fish were also drifting with the boat and didn’t wash ashore with it -- suggesting that there may have been other living creatures arriving on the U.S. coast with the tsunami debris that swam away before their host vehicles landed. “We do wonder what’s disappearing before it comes to shore,” Chapman said. Chandler said he was surprised to see the fish survive a voyage in water much colder than that to which they’re accustomed. “But I guess they had two years to acclimate” he said.

Studying the Tsunami Debris

Tony Barboza wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “For some scientists, the tsunami offers an unprecedented opportunity to study the fate of a huge volume of debris as it spreads from a single geographic point and single moment in time through the world's largest ocean. "A tragic experiment of nature," University of Hawaii researcher Nikolai Maximenko calls it. [Source: Tony Barboza, Los Angeles Times, May 26, 2012]

“Some aren't waiting for the debris to arrive; they are sailing out to meet it. In June 2012, a 13-member research expedition sailed through the doldrums of the North Pacific — lonely, still expanses sparsely traveled by ships — in search of debris from the tsunami. To cover the costs, passengers are paying $15,500 each to accompany marine debris experts on the 72-foot sailboat — the Sea Dragon — on the voyage from Tokyo to Maui.

“Finding the debris could be a bit like searching for drops of ink in a swimming pool — one that covers nearly one-third of the Earth's surface. So the researchers will drag trawls and pool skimmers behind the racing vessel, reporting observations and taking photographs and measurements of anything they find. "There could be masses of nets and propane tanks. There could be boats overturned. There could be car tires bobbing around. We just don't know," said expedition leader Marcus Eriksen, executive director of the 5 Gyres Institute.

Marcus Eriksen wrote in Natural History magazine: “The tsunami washed entire communities, an estimated 5 million tons of material, into the ocean at one time, on one day. More than 150 miles of the coastline is stripped bare. Concrete slabs lie where homes once stood, much of the debris gathered into giant piles to be separated manually into recoverable materials. But much more was washed into the Pacific, and what didn’t sink immediately was taken by the Kuroshio Current into the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, an ocean-wide vortex of clockwise currents that sequester floating trash. [Source: Marcus Eriksen, Natural History magazine]

“As horrible as that disaster was, it has also provided scientists with an opportunity to learn something new, a unique and unrepeatable experiment in oceanography. Of all the construction material, metals, roofing tiles, insulation, cars, tires, trees, glass bulbs, appliances, furniture, textiles, and diverse plastic materials, what, we want to know, is still at sea today, and where is it going? Natural organics, such as trees and wooden construction materials, are likely gone, bored by worms or waterlogged and sunk. Metals, glass, and fiberglass, unless still trapping air, have also sunk, leaving mostly polyethylene and polypropylene plastics adrift. With tremendous caution and compassion, we are going to find out.

“Two California-based organizations, the 5 Gyres Institute in Santa Monica and the Algalita Marine Research Institute in Long Beach, organized the expedition route based on oceanographic models predicting landfall of tsunami debris. To date hundreds of tsunami artifacts have reached the shore from northern California to Kodiak, Alaska, including oyster-farm floats, soccer balls, a fishing dock, one Harley-Davidson in the back of an insulated container, and a 120-foot rusted fishing boat (which was scuttled soon after its discovery near British Columbia). Based on the videos of debris being swept off Japan the year before, the public imagines a haunting mirror image, with waves of debris crashing onshore. But when and where debris arrives depends on a variety of factors, especially variations in the direction and velocity of wind and current.

“That’s not all. “What we’re finding is that debris reacts differently to wind and current depending on how it is positioned in the water,” explained Nikolai Maximenko of the International Pacific Research Center at the University of Hawaii, an oceanographer tracking tsunami debris. In other words, the movement of a floating object depends on how much of it is exposed to the wind, known as its windage, and how much is beneath the surface. “What you may find on your expedition is the lowwindage, subsurface debris field,” he said. We want to ground-truth this model, as well as to understand the life cycle of diverse materials thrust into the ocean: what marine life colonizes this debris, and what the long-term ecological impacts are.

“First mate Jesse Horton becomes adept atscooping up debris from the bow, netting a toothbrush and a comb within one hour, and occasionally a fragment with identifiable Japanese characters. We’ve begun timed observations. With a clipboard and a stopwatch, two people stare at the sea surface out to sixty feet off the beam on both sides, recording everything they see. In forty-one nonconsecutive hours spread over three weeks, we catalog 690 pieces, averaging one piece every 3.6 minutes. We also record 130 random observations of trash, all identified as to object and material when possible.

“Only 2 percent of the items are non-plastic, including glass, metal, and natural organics. Roughly 60 percent are unidentified fragments of hard plastic or foamed polystyrene. The rest are unmistakable items: buckets, crates, flip-flops, a coffee cup, fishing floats and rope, plastic bags and bottles, bottle caps, a toy red pail in the shape of a castle, a syringe, a clothes hanger, a surfboard fin, a felt-tip marker, a boot eerily laced to the top, and a few glass jars, bottles, bulbs, and fluorescent tubes. It’s extremely difficult to know when or from where debris has originated, but three objects stand out as from the tsunami.

“A big tire just went by!” photographer Mandy Barker yells. We go back for it. It is not easy to turn the boat around when full sails are up. “Roll the jib and center the main,” skipper Olson yells. Barker keeps her eyes on the tire, now more than a tenth of a mile behind us. “Ten degrees to port, fifty meters off the bow,” crew yell to guide the boat to the tire. Using a scoop net, it’s a struggle to haul the algaecovered tire aboard, still inflated on the rim. Thirty small crabs drop to the deck. A bristle worm is wedged between the rim and the tire, and a dozen gooseneck barnacles sticking outward along the treads flail their cirri, or legs, grasping at the air. It’s a tire from a small truck, unlike a tire seen on U.S. vehicles, with “Made in Japan” embossed on one side. The rim is well preserved where it is painted, but any exposed iron is nearly rusted through. If left for another year in the sea, the tire would likely fill with water and sink. Soon after, Paul Sharp, founder of Australia’s Two Hands Project, nets a piece of thatch the size of a large pizza box. Two layers of straw thatch, factory stitched with a thin sheet of blue foamed polystyrene insulation in the middle, is unmistakably a piece of traditional tatami mat from the floor of a Japanese home. Straw, like any other natural organic or wooden construction material, does not last long at sea. Wood-boring worms, known to plague ships for centuries, or seawater seeping into the air-trapping spaces between plant tissues, will decrease the buoyancy of plant material and eventually sink it. The timing of decay, location in the debris field, and lack of slowgrowing colonial bryozoans give me confidence that the tire and matting are from the tsunami.

“Low-windage debris, influenced largely by current, behaves differently, moving southward into the California Current and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. What we’ll likely see in the years ahead is a trickle of debris reaching North American coastlines, and then an increase in degraded-plastic pollution on the eastern shores of Hawaii, like famed Kamilo and Kahuku beaches, where weekly beach cleanups can barely keep up with the never-ending plastic waves. Over time the tsunami debris will become indistinguishable from the background of trash in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, noticeable only an increase in microplastics in future researchers’ trawls. The impacts on wildlife owing to ingestion and entanglement are the same, whatever the source.

Dealing with the Debris from the Tsunami

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In June 2011, the environmental ministry estimated that 23.92 million tons of debris was created by the earthquake and tsunami. As of mid June about 5.19 million tons, or 22 percent, had been moved to temporary storage spaces.

Kazuyuki Akaishi, a waste and recycling expert at the Japan Research Institute, said estimates of the volume of tsunami and earthquake debris range from 80 million to 200 million tons. The Environment Ministry has estimated that left by destroyed houses is around 25 million tons. In a typical year, the entire country generates about 71 million tons of household waste and more than 400 million tons of industrial waste, according to the Environment Ministry. [Source: Julie Makinen, Los Angeles Times, April 03, 2011]

The debris included everything from 300-ton ships and smashed cars to waterlogged heirlooms and soiled family photos. There were concerns about toxins such as asbestos, dioxins and PCBs. While the debris remains wet, asbestos can't disperse into the air. But when the dry season arrives, dangerous particles could be inhaled. For the short term parks, baseball fields and stadiums were used as temporary dumps. But longer term, there are serious questions about where in an already space-challenged island nation the trash can be disposed of.

In the Ryoishicho district of Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture an 18-meter-high tsunami flooded an area as far as one kilometer inland. It carried light materials like wood to a hillside, left relatively heavy debris closer to the sea, and deposited the heaviest items, such as concrete blocks and metal, near the shoreline.[Source: Atsuki Kira and Akiko Yoshinaga, Yomiuri Shimbun, May 10 2011]

A huge mass of floating debris — which includes floating houses, car tires and pieces of timber and fishing gear — is expected to reach Hawaii in 2012 and the est coast of the United States in 2014.

See Radioactive Debris

Conflict Over Recycling the Debris

Research bodies have urged people in disaster-hit areas to sort debris according to material type to simplify the later processes of recycling and disposal. The Environment Ministry has said thus will boost restoration efforts in the long run by making better use of heavy machinery and recycling more waste materials. Local however say they are "too busy to talk about the long term" and "just want to get rid of the debris as soon as we can," arguing cleaning up as quickly as possible should be the top priority.[Source: Atsuki Kira and Akiko Yoshinaga, Yomiuri Shimbun, May 10 2011]

The Japan Society of Material Cycles and Waste Management has compiled a manual for sorting waste materials. The manual recommends separating debris according to what should be burned, buried and recycled — offering the respective examples of tires, electrical appliances and fishing nets. The Sendai city government plans to recycle broken trees that now litter an about-10-kilometer stretch of the city's coastline, chipping them to be used as fuel at a biomass power station or recycling them into paper. "It'd be such a waste to just burn the trees. The money gained by selling the woodchips will cover some of the central government's cleanup expenses," said a city official in charge of waste disposal. The Forestry Agency plans to subsidize 50 percent of local governments' purchases of wood chippers. "We estimate between 10 percent and 20 percent of debris [in disaster-hit areas] could be used as fuel at biomass power stations," an agency spokesperson said.

Problems Getting Rid of the Mountains of Debris

The Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “The March 11 earthquake and tsunami left behind about 25 million tons of rubble and other waste, but tight geography and damage to disposal facilities has made getting rid of it — essential if rebuilding is to begin — a knotty problem. "Our temporary storage area is already full. We need extra space but we don't know where to get any," said an official in charge of debris disposal in Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture.” [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, April 17, 2011]

In principle, local governments are expected to collect disaster waste within their jurisdictions, place it in temporary storage areas, sort it into several categories (such as building debris, vehicles and ships, nonburnable objects and toxic waste) and then incinerate or bury it. The hard-hit Sanriku region in Iwate and Miyagi prefectures is sandwiched between the Pacific Ocean and the mountains, with only a few narrow plains. The difficulty of the task skyrockets in Fukushima Prefecture, where radiation leaks from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant have contaminated rubble and debris, bringing a whole new level of complexity and urgency to the issue.

After the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake, disposing of the about 14.5 million tons of debris took about three years. Without counting vehicles and ships, the amount of waste in the March disaster is 1.7 times that left by the 1995 quake.

Neighborhoods in Kesennuma were almost totally destroyed, leaving an unimaginable amount of waste to deal with, the city's civil engineering department said. The department has searched high and low for places to put the crushed buildings and smashed cars, even considering using places by the sea where roads are still under water, but has only been able to secure 12 hectares.

Iwate and Miyagi prefectures, neither with much in the way of flat land, together have about 174 hectares to store debris temporarily. But even if waste is piled up five meters high — about the maximum possible to avoid spontaneous combustion — this amount of space could only store about 10 million tons of waste.

Aichi Accepts 500,000 Tons of Tohoku Debris

In March 2012 the Aichi prefectural government announced it would build storage and incineration facilities on an artificial island to dispose of 500,000 tons of debris from the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, making Aichi the first prefecture to build such facilities to dispose of debris generated by the disaster, according to the officials. The facilities will be located in Nagoya Port's No. 5 south district in Chita, where an industrial waste treatment facility once stood. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, March 26, 2012]

According to the Reconstruction Agency, last year's disaster generated an estimated 22.53 million tons of debris in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures, which were struck hard by the massive earthquake and tsunami. Iwate and Miyagi hope to have about 4 million tons of debris treated outside the prefectures.

The Tokyo metropolitan government has announced it would accept 500,000 tons of debris. More local governments have followed suit amid growing calls from the central government to chip in and remove the disaster debris.

Shortage of Soil Plagues Reconstruction

In March 2012, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported: Areas devastated by the Great East Japan Earthquake are now facing a new problem of how to secure an enormous amount of soil needed for reconstruction works. The problem is a major headache, particularly for farmers who had the surface soil of their farmland washed away by the tsunami, as it remains uncertain when they will be able to obtain soil suitable for farming and resume work. [Source: March

Kazuko Abe, 49, a full-time farmer in Otsuchi, Iwate Prefecture, said with a furrowed brow, "I wonder when I can get soil to start cultivating," looking upon her neglected rice field. She used to grow rice and buckwheat in her about 1.5-hectare field. However, the tsunami washed away most of the surface soil. Earth and sand from the sea have now accumulated there.

Although some debris was removed, nails and glass pieces still remain in the field. She consulted the town office, saying she would like to cover the damaged field with new soil. However, she was told no soil was available. Abe disappointedly said: "It's frustrating, as I want to farm. It's hard for me to just wait like this."

In Iwate Prefecture alone, the disaster damaged a total of about 700 hectares of farmland. About 1.57 million cubic meters of soil, equivalent to an amount that could fill the Tokyo Dome 1.3 times, will be necessary to improve the land. Unfortunately, rocky coastal areas of the Sanriku region contain little soil suitable for farming. In autumn last year, the prefectural government started asking municipalities if they could find soil in their neighborhood to lower transportation costs. But most local governments found it difficult.

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Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated January 2014

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