April 2, 2011 in City

Flotsam from tsunami will reach West Coast

Phuong Le Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

Curt Ebbesmeyer, at a Puget Sound beach Wednesday, holds a necklace made of ocean flotsam as he talks about how debris from Japan will wash ashore in Washington.
(Full-size photo)

SEATTLE – John Anderson has discovered just about everything during the 30 years he’s combed Washington state’s beaches: glass fishing floats, hockey gloves, bottled messages, even hundreds of Nike sneakers that washed up barnacled but otherwise unworn.

The biggest haul may come in one to three years when, scientists say, wind and ocean currents eventually will push some of the debris from Japan’s tsunami and earthquake onto the shores of the U.S. West Coast.

“I’m fascinated to see what actually makes it over here, compared to what might sink or biodegrade out there,” said Anderson, 57, a plumber and avid beachcomber who lives in the coastal town of Forks, Wash.

The floating debris will likely be carried by currents off 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.

Ebbesmeyer, who has traced Nike sneakers, plastic bath toys and hockey gloves accidentally spilled from Asia cargo ships, is now tracking the massive debris field moving across the Pacific Ocean from Japan. He relies heavily on a network of thousands of beachcombers such as Anderson to report the location and details of their finds.

“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.

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.

“All this debris will find a way to reach the West Coast or stop in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” a swirling mass of concentrated marine litter in the Pacific Ocean, said Luca Centurioni, a researcher at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego.

Much of the debris will be plastic, which doesn’t completely break down. That raises concerns about marine pollution and the potential harm to marine life. But the amount of tsunami debris, while massive, still pales in comparison to the litter that is dumped into oceans on a regular basis, Ebbesmeyer said.

Ebbesmeyer first became interested in flotsam when he heard reports of beachcombers finding hundreds of shoes in Washington, Oregon and Alaska. An Asia cargo ship bound for the U.S. in 1990 had spilled thousands of Nike shoes into the middle of the North Pacific Ocean. He was able to trace serial numbers on shoes to the cargo ship, giving him the points where they began drifting in the ocean and where they landed.

The oceanographer also has tracked plastic bath toys that fell overboard a cargo ship in 1992 in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and were later found in Sitka, Alaska.

Anderson says he constantly scans the beaches watching for something that catches his eye. He’s found about 20 bottled messages, mostly from schoolchildren, and the several hundred Nike sneakers, which he cleaned up by soaking in water and eventually gave away, sold or swapped.

“In two years, there’s going to be stuff coming in (from Japan), and probably lots of it,” he said. “Some of it is bound to come in.”

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