An estimated 19,000 people died in March 2011, when an earthquake and tsunami destroyed entire Japanese towns, and triggered the worst nuclear disaster in a generation. Fifteen months and 5,000 miles later, debris swept away in the tsunami has begun to wash up on North American shores. A 66-foot dock, weighing 160 tons, landed this month on Agate Beach, near Newport, Oregon.
Marine researchers study ocean debris of all sizes to help them understand the currents, eddies and winds that serendipitously deliver material from one watery part of the world to another. It’s not a new phenomenon. Anthropologists have even suggested that Native Americans mined iron from wrecked Japanese ships that floated to North America.
Scientists and environmentalists have also become alarmed at the sheer mass of ocean pollution. Jim Moriarty, CEO of the ocean and beach protection group called the Surfrider Foundation, told an audience in Washington, DC, yesterday that in the last few years, plastic trash has eclipsed even water quality as the top concern for many of his organization's local chapters. Industrial-made materials degrade once they enter the ocean, often to microscopic size. There’s so much plastic in the ocean that scientists have identified the so-called "Great Pacific Garbage Patch," which swarms with degraded particles and chemical muck. Only rarely is marine debris, such as the Japanese dock, large enough to attract tourists with cameras once it’s washed ashore.
A shipping container carrying 28,800 plastic bath toys -- yellow ducks, red beavers, green frogs and blue turtles -- fell into the Pacific Ocean in January 1992, en route from China to the U.S. Some floated to land. The toys’ journey has been featured numerous times in media, most compellingly by journalist Donovan Hohn, whose 2011 book, Moby Duck, chronicles his own Ahab-like quest for that icon of American childhood, the rubber ducky. I asked Hohn for his thoughts about the large-scale Japanese debris now spotted in the U.S. His response:
"I've been wondering all over again why flotsam stories like these capture the imagination. What is it about a kid's soccer ball turning up off the coast of Alaska? Or a Japanese dock stranding on an Oregon beach? I think the unlikelihood of it all, that the unpredictable currents would deliver this thing, to this exact spot, makes these objects seem a bit magical, even if they're worthless. Or even, in some cases -- that dock, the derelict fishing boat -- a public safety hazard. They have stories to tell. That soccer ball is no longer a soccer ball but a kind of relic of a historical event and a distant place.
"I've also been struck by how much the reporting of the tsunami debris has taught the general public about the physics of ocean currents. Have you seen those lovely NASA animations of the debris? Some of the reporting has focused on the environmental story, and there is an environmental story here. But I think it's worth emphasizing when it comes to the environmental angle that it's really not the tsunami debris we should be most worried about but the stuff, visible and otherwise, that is quietly and boringly entering the ocean every day."
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