In our own Backyard

Story last updated at 5:07 PM on Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Searching for tsunami debris

By Michael Armstrong
Staff Writer


Photographer: Michael Armstrong, Homer News

This large Styrofoam float found March 17 on the beach near Diamond Creek could be Japanese tsunami debris.

A year after a magnitude 9 earthquake devastated Japan, killing 16,000 people, with 3,500 more missing, and destroying 125,000 buildings, debris from a tsunami that put 25 million tons into the Pacific Ocean could start showing up soon in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest.

By some accounts, it already has — including a buoy found by me on the Diamond Creek beach near Bluff Point on Saint Patrick's Day.

Last week, the Canadian Coast Guard reported the first sighting of clearly identifiable tsunami debris to arrive in North America. According to the Vancouver Sun, Japanese officials verified that hull numbers of a 150-foot fishing boat found adrift south of Haida Gwaii, B.C. (formerly known as the Queen Charlotte Islands), were from a ship reported lost in the March 11, 2011, tsunami. The ship's owner said nobody was thought to be on board the ship when it was dragged out to sea by the tsunami. The Canadian Coast Guard spotted the ship on March 20 on a routine fisheries and defense patrol. As of last Friday, it was about 160 miles south of Cape Saint James.

On March 17, as part of a volunteer effort for the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies to do monthly monitoring of Kachemak Bay beaches in anticipation of tsunami debris, I walked two miles of beach southeast of Diamond Creek collecting and recording marine debris. It's a section of beach I've monitored for CACS for more than 10 years for the annual CoastWalk fall cleanup. Most of the beach was clean, but in a cove near where a geologic uplift pushed up the sea floor in 2009, I found some trash along a wrack line of driftwood from one of this winter's extreme high tides. Resting on a log sat a 36-inch long, 20-inch diameter battered Styrofoam buoy — the kind of buoy Seattle oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer said he thinks came from the Japanese tsunami.

Ebbesmeyer, author of "Flotsametrics and the Floating World," and an expert on the drift of flotsam in oceans, has collected more than 50 reports from northern California to Kodiak — now Homer — of about 400 large buoys and other objects. About 75 percent of these buoys are similar to the big white buoy I found. Photos taken shortly after the tsunami by the U.S. Navy of a debris field offshore of Japan show three distinctive buoys similar to what has been reported in the Pacific Northwest: large black buoys, white Styrofoam buoys and yellow buoys, what Ebbesmeyer calls type 1, 2 and 3 buoys. Beachcombers also have found red and white cans that held kerosene and vinegar.

The buoys probably come from oyster farms, Ebbesmeyer said. One buoy had Japanese writing that translates as "Kaki Oysters." Another buoy had a bag of oysters floating under it that one beachcomber said he's been eating.

White buoys like I found were seen by beachcombers Sept. 26-Oct. 4 in Kodiak and early October in Yakutat. Beachcombers familiar with marine debris have said the buoys are unusual for Alaska. The buoy I found is something I haven't seen before on Kachemak Bay beaches.

Using computer models, oceanographer Jim Ingraham calculated that large objects like the buoys would catch the wind and move faster than smaller objects drifting with currents at a speed of 23 miles a day compared to 7 miles a day without accounting for wind. This effect, called windage, could have pushed tsunami debris across the Pacific to Washington and north to Southeast Alaska by Halloween of 2011, his model showed. The spotting near British Columbia of a Japanese boat washed to sea by the tsunami shows these models are correct.

But did the buoy I found come from the tsunami?

"It's hard to say definitely," Peter Murphy, Alaska coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Marine Debris program, said. "A Styrofoam object would be the type that would move more quickly."

Based on the numbers and types of buoys, Ingraham's models backed up by beachcomber findings, and the sudden arrival of suspect flotsam, Ebbesmeyer said he thinks it's clear tsunami debris has already arrived in North America — and that it's highly probable my buoy came from the tsunami.

"The combined weight of all this evidence is undeniable to me," he said. "And then if you don't believe the buoys, believe the boat."

Marine debris is already an ocean-wide problem. In response to the threat of Japanese tsunami marine debris, NOAA has started working with local organizations like CACS to monitor Alaska's beaches for the expected arrival of debris, including developing baseline data before debris hits. That's something the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies already has.

Recently, a TV reporter asked CACS marine debris coordinator Patrick Chandler how long it has been preparing for tsunami debris.

"Twenty-eight years," Chandler said he told them.

Each fall since 1984, as part of the CACS CoastWalk program, volunteers have been cleaning up Kachemak Bay beaches and recording information like wildlife sightings, beach erosion and kinds of intertidal life. Coordinating cleanups with the International Coastal Cleanup, volunteers weigh bags of collected debris and note information like kinds and quantity of debris found.

Chandler said Alaskans will know tsunami debris has arrived by a noticeable change in local marine debris.

"It's really all about seeing how the makeup and quantity of debris changes," he said.

That's part of the tracking CACS volunteers will do monthly. CACS is asking people to walk local beaches and collect and record information on marine debris.

"It's coming, and it's coming a lot faster than anybody thinks," Ebbesmeyer said of the tsunami debris. "We have to get ready."

Mariners and beach users should report drifting boats, human remains and cultural objects to these authorities:

• Hazardous debris at sea: U.S. Coast Guard, Sector Anchorage, (907) 271-6769;

• Human remains: Homer Police, 235-3150 or Alaska State Troopers, 235-8239;

• Other debris: Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies, 235-6667 or;

• Cultural items: NOAA,

For more information, visit NOAA's Marine Debris website at and Curtis Ebbesmeyer's Flotsametrics blog:

Michael Armstrong can be reached at