Japanese tsunami debris: Lots of flotsam by October, ocean expert warns
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Jeff Chew/Peninsula Daily News
Curt Ebbesmeyer tells a Sequim audience that they should be prepared for flotsam along the Pacific coast.

By Rob Ollikainen
Peninsula Daily News

Beachcombing will get a lot more interesting this October.

That's when the bulk of the flotsam unleashed by the Japanese tsunami of March 2011 will begin to arrive on the North Olympic Peninsula, oceanographer Curt Ebbesmeyer told an audience at Peninsula College in Port Angeles on Monday night.

He also conducted a workshop in Sequim on Tuesday (see story, Page A9).

Ebbesmeyer and his colleagues believe that the leading edge of the main debris field will hit the Washington coast as ocean currents shift this fall.

Some flotsam is expected to spill into the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

“I'd be watching for it,” Ebbesmeyer said.

“In my view, we're in a six-month countdown to October.”

While there have numerous magnitude 9.0 earthquakes along the Pacific rim, humans have never been around to record the arrival of this much tsunami debris, Ebbesmeyer said.

“This is an unprecedented event,” he told a crowd of about 80 during a 90-minute presentation at the college's Little Theater.

“It's not just the leading edge. It's just going to keep arriving for the next several years.

“We've got to be ready.”

Ebbesmeyer's presentation was an overview to the three-day North Olympic Tsunami Debris Symposium in Port Angeles and Sequim.

A debris identification workshop was held on Tuesday in Sequim.

A second identification workshop is scheduled from 9 a.m. to noon today in the upstairs conference room of the Landing mall in Port Angeles, 115 E. Railroad Ave. A community planning session is scheduled from 1:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. today in the same conference room.

The symposium was hosted by the Clallam County Marine Resources Committee in partnership with the Surfrider Foundation and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA.

“I'm here to say it is not rocket science,” Ebbesmeyer said.

“If we're organized, this is not a problem.”

Ebbesmeyer is the co-creator of the Ocean Surface Current Simulator — or OSCURS — computer model, which predicts the movement of ocean flotsam worldwide using known ocean current patterns and wind speed and direction information provided by the U.S. Navy.

Ebbesmeyer displayed a series of slides showing computer simulations of the debris transport developed by his colleague, oceanographer Jim Ingraham of DriftBusters Inc.

Fast-moving debris from the Japanese tsunami, including oyster buoys, soccer balls and a shipping container holding a Harley-Davidson motorcycle with Japanese license plates, has already arrived on the shores of North America.

“I already have, I think, 500 buoys in my files,” Ebbesmeyer said.

Last month, the fishing vessel Ryou-Un Maru, which was dislodged by the tsunami, was sank by the U.S. Coast Guard in the Gulf of Alaska.

“I'm expecting 100 vessels over the next couple of years,” Ebbesmeyer said.

“I think they'll vary from like 20 feet, maybe 15 feet, up to — you saw the rusty boat, that was 150 feet.”

Ebbesmeyer classified the debris into the three categories: the “first arrivals” that landed on U.S. and Canadian shores last October, the “latest arrivals” of this spring and a “main event” this October.

“So if you see something that might be tsunami debris, look around,” Ebbesmeyer said.

“There will probably be something else there in the same spot.”

Ebbesmeyer said 84.6 of the first 400 Japanese buoys that floated across the Pacific Ocean landed on Vancouver Island. About 11 percent landed in Washington, including several in Clallam County. The rest washed up in Alaska, Oregon and Northern California.

A soccer ball that was discovered in Alaska was traced to a boy who lives in Northern Japan, Ebbesmeyer said.

A basketball that landed on Prince of Wales Island was traced to a Japanese middle school.

“It's the Japanese media that are fostering the return of objects like this,” Ebbesmeyer said.

“I'm convinced it's going to happen hundreds, maybe thousands, of times in the next several years. And there is a big chance that Japanese tourism could be a significant factor in Clallam County.”

Based on past spills of hockey gloves and Nike shoes, Ebbesmeyer estimates that 74 percent of the debris that washes ashore in Washington will land on 10 percent of its coastline.

Asked if human remains will accompany the debris field, Ebbesmeyer said: “We're expecting 100 sneakers with bones in them.”

“The good news in this case is that the Japanese must have a very large DNA database because there's still 3,000 people missing,” he said.

“If you find a sneaker, stop in your tracks. Take a stick, turn it over, and see if there's remains in it. If there are, call 9-1-1 and wait for the police.”

“That may be the only remains that a Japanese family is ever going to have of their people that were lost.

“We're dealing with things that are of extreme sensitivity. Emotional content is just enormous. So be respectful.”

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Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5072, or at rob.ollikainen@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: May 23. 2012 12:41AM
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