Message on a bottle: Tsunami drift devices with GPS might wash up on Peninsula beaches

By Arwyn Rice
Peninsula Daily News

Among the driftwood and debris on North Olympic Peninsula beaches, visitors may find international orange and yellow bottles that aren’t debris at all.

Researchers from Tottori University and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Debris Program are seeking 150 soda-bottle GPS drift transponders that were dropped into the water off the coast of Japan to study debris drift patterns after the massive March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

Each transponder bottle includes instructions for contacting researchers.

Beachcombers are asked to watch for these transponders, which were put into the water three months after the tsunami, and follow directions on the bottles.

Tottori, a national university in Japan, is located in Koyamacho-Minami, Tottori City, Tottori Prefecture.

The bottles have been floating among the debris for more than two years, and some are expected to land on beaches in Washington state, Oregon, California, Alaska and British Columbia.

Since October 2012, beach visitors in the Pacific Northwest have been finding items that could be traced to the tsunami, beginning with large floats that were used in Japanese shellfish farming that were torn free by the tsunami and driven by winds ahead of the main body of debris.

Since then, debris including fishing boats, docks, lumber, children’s toys, shipping containers, fishing gear, chemical drums and sports balls have been found on coasts from Alaska to California.

The earthquake and tsunami claimed nearly 20,000 lives, destroyed homes and structures, and swept 5 million tons of debris into the Pacific Ocean.

An estimated 70 percent of the debris sank near Japan’s shore, while the remaining 1.5 million tons of debris entered ocean currents.

Beachgoers who encounter potentially hazardous debris should not touch or attempt to move it. Hazardous items should be reported to the state hotline at 855-922-6278.

Hazardous items will be removed by the state Department of Ecology, U.S. Coast Guard or Environmental Protection Agency.

Those items include spilled oil, drums and barrels, fuel tanks, gas cylinders, chemical totes and other containers with unknown fluids.

The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor, located in the tsunami zone, experienced multiple meltdowns, and radioactive water was released from the plant into the ocean.

Health experts have said they do not expect to find any marine debris with elevated radiation levels. Tests on debris items revealed only low background levels of radiation.

The state Department of Health radiation team will respond to any debris marked with words or symbols that indicate it may be radioactive.

More information on the state marine debris plan can be found at http://marinedebris.wa.gov.

Report debris sightings, including the time, date, location and any photos, to DisasterDebris@noaa.gov.

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Reporter Arwyn Rice can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5070, or at arwyn.rice@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: November 23. 2013 6:07PM
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