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    This Year, More Japanese Tsunami Debris Will Wash Up on U.S. Shores Than Ever Before

    Written by

    Brian Merchant

    Senior Editor

    Mike Sirofchuck holds a collection of sports team fly swatters found on Kodiak Island, Alaska, which are believed to come from a shipping container knocked overboard by the 2011 tsunami

    When the tragedy-bearing tsunami slammed into Japan in 2011 the fallout was felt all around the world, figuratively and literally. The crisis that unfolded at Fukushima led to a globe-spanning conversation about the merits and pitfalls of nuclear power, and to nations like Germany and Japan taking their nuke reactors offline. But a less momentous and oft-overlooked result of the earthquake is that for two years now, it has lined the oceans and the west coast of North America with an impressive amount of Japanese junk.

    The detritus—everything from Styrofoam trash to whole refrigerators—has washed ashore everywhere from Hawaii to California to British Columbia to Alaska. Especially Alaska. Chris Pallister, the president of an environmental NGO in Alaska recently told NPR it’s gotten so bad on some of Alaska’s shores that it’s like “standing in landfill out here.”

    Map of tsunami marine debris sightings as of July 12, 2012. Confirmed Japanese tsunami debris sightings are marked with red triangles, potential ones with yellow circles. (Map by Coastal Response Research Center, University of New Hampshire, courtesy NOAA)

    And according to NASA, it’s only going to get worse. Some 20 million tons of debris were washed ashore in the wake of the catastrophe, and while most of that sunk, the rest has been headed eastward with the North Pacific ocean current.

    When NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab modeled the current, it correctly predicted that the first wave of rubbish would hit Alaska in September 2011. The trash will continue to wash ashore at least until around 2016, however—and the peak of the refuse onslaught is expected to hit this year, in 2013.

    Scott Sutherland notes that the provincial government of B.C. has an agreement with the state governments of Alaska, California, Oregon, and Washington on how to deal with cleanup. However, NPR reports that U.S. funding for tsunami debris cleanup has just been diverted to the Sandy relief fund—meaning there’s no government backing for future cleanup efforts.

    All that debris poses a significant environmental threats, too—some of it’s toxic, as gas containers, cleaning products, and other chemical cocktails have shown up en mass. And animals have taken to eating the indigestible garbage that’s washed ashore.

    Further complicating matters is the fact that the US government won’t label debris as originating from the tsunami unless it has obvious demarcations like Japanese characters still intact. Generic products are assumed to belong to the number of items that wash up on western shores anyway, which helps prevent funding or interest in bolstering the cleanup effort.

    So the trash continues to pile up; it’s the ripple effect from a tragedy of epic proportions felt, years later, in numerous, mostly-invisible smaller ones.


    Video: Toxic: Garbage Island


    Photos by Loren Holmes, Chris Pallister (Gulf Keepers of Alaska)