Tokyo. Sendai. Kamaishi City. Portland. Honolulu. Hilo. Kahului. Lincoln City. Newport Beach. These are places I’ve been fortunate enough to visit over the past year – for a very unfortunate reason. Two years ago on this very day, the ocean reminded the world of its astounding power when the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami devastated the country’s northern coast. While significant recovery work remains to rebuild Japan, an increased focus has been placed on the exorbitant quantity of marine debris generated by the tsunami’s receding waters. At the same time, international entities are collaborating on tsunami debris response measures, while researchers learn a great deal about marine debris in general.
Because we know the precise time at which debris was deposited into the ocean, researchers have had an unparalleled opportunity to examine how debris moves in the marine environment. With each confirmation of tsunami debris washing ashore, oceanographers at University of Hawaii’s International Pacific Research Center have refined their models and are predicting when and where large volumes of tsunami debris will wash ashore with greater levels of confidence. Current predictions indicate significant debris accumulations will commence in June. However, these models are merely predictions and no one can say for certain what we will see or when we will see it. This uncertainty further underscores the importance of remaining vigilant for potential tsunami debris in the coming months.
Last summer in Alaska, Hawaii, Washington and Oregon, “waves” of similar debris items began washing ashore. This wave was followed by an unusually large number of appliances found on Hawaiian beaches. The three segments of docks that were swept out of Misawa came to rest on the Oregon and Washington coasts over a span of six months. By studying these events, oceanographers were able to determine that the amount of wind affecting debris — better known as “windage” — largely determines the speed at which debris drifts across the ocean. This phenomenon largely explains why we’ve seen these waves of debris.
In November, the Japanese government announced it would donate $6 million to the United States and Canada to help mitigate the costs of tsunami debris response efforts and debris clean up.
This tragic event has engaged a broad network of dedicated responders from both sides of the Pacific, including government representatives at NOAA and the Japanese Ministry of the Environment, NGOs like the Japanese Environmental Action Network and Ocean Conservancy and passionate volunteers. Ocean Conservancy has developed a Tsunami Debris Field Guide that serves as an educational tool for those volunteers along the West Coast.
Today, on the two year anniversary of the tsunami, I board a plane destined for Tokyo where I will meet with the Japanese Ministry of Environment and Japanese and U.S. NGOs to discuss tsunami response efforts to date, and preparations moving forward. During my stay, I will again have the opportunity to tour the coastal towns near Sendai in Miyagi Prefecture. And while in my mind I am optimistic that the recovery effort will be near completion, I know the reality is that Sendai — and much of Japan — has a long road to recovery, but physical recovery is only step one. In Sendai, many elementary and middle-aged students have not returned to the beach or ocean since 3/11 because the emotional trauma is too great. For many of them, these places have become synonymous with terror, destruction and death.
The ensuing threat of tsunami debris is great, but we must never forget that the tsunami was first and foremost a human tragedy — unpreventable, unpredictable and unavoidable.
So today, March 11th, 2013, honor the people of Japan with a moment of silence and ask the simple question, “How can we help Japan?”