May 7, 2011

Ocean of Tumult

The most recent Japan Earthquake has left the Pacific Ocean roaring.

"Therefore we will not fear, even though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea; though its waters roar and be troubled, though the mountains shake with its swelling."

Psalm 46:2-3

We all watched as the Japanese tsunami swept cars, machinery, and houses into the ocean this past March, but it took a couple scientists obsessed with the ocean’s currents to ask: Where is all of that stuff going to end up?

Nikolai Maximenko and Jan Hafner at the University of Hawaii’s International Pacific Research Center have developed computer models that predict the debris’ path. Maximenko is the scientist whose models accurately predicted where three of the world’s five great ocean garbage patches would be found, so the guy understands how the ocean’s currents carry around our crap.

Turns out the tsunami debris is going to move in a plume eastward across the Pacific Ocean. As anyone who’s ever crossed it can attest, the Pacific is really, really big, so it will take a full two years for this parade of disaster detritus to dump onto the Hawaiian Islands. In three years it reaches the West Coast of the U.S., where it’s predicted to barrage beaches from Baja to Alaska. And then things get even stranger. Whatever doesn’t wash up on land will then drift back west and eventually join up with the infamous North Pacific Garbage Patch, one of the world ocean’s more popular gathering places for the junk humans throw into rivers, onto beaches, and off fishing and cruise ships.

After milling about here for a couple of years and gradually breaking down into bits that no longer resemble houses and cars, it will head out for one final hurrah and wash up on the beaches and reefs of Hawaii again five years from now. And that secondary blast of trash will be worse than the first, even if the garbage will be more degraded at that point.

It’s quite a voyage, and one that will add plenty of debris to the world’s floating dumps that already cause plenty of trouble for sea life, fishing and cargo boats, and those random crazy people who try to do things like paddling across the Pacific.

The largest plume of debris is reportedly 69 miles long and covers nearly a square mile, according to the U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet, which has been tracking the trash. NOAA is also tracking the flow of refuse via satellite. Unfortunately just tracking the mess isn’t quite good enough, though a study by Oregon State University’s College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences sadly suggests that cleaning up all the plastic in the ocean would be difficult, introduce hundreds of times more carbon into the climate than polycarbonate it could possibly remove, and would likely endanger microorganisms in the process. What about recovering any larger debris dispersed from Japan? It’s still in the thinking stages, but was a topic of discussion at the International Marine Debris Conference in Hawaii, where Maximenko and Hafner presented their findings.

In the mean time, there’s another problem on land in Japan, beyond that nuclear issue. The tsunami and earthquake resulted in 24 million metric tons of debris, which represents roughly half of Japan’s annual trash output.

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