SAN FRANCISCO -- A year ago, the great Japanese tsunami destroyed entire towns and killed thousands of people. But the dreaded second tsunami -- the 25 million tons of debris washed into the Pacific Ocean -- looks to be a much tamer affair.
Most of that garbage sank, disintegrated or joined the rest of the Pacific trash vortex. Very little of it is expected to wash up on West Coast beaches, officials say.
"You'll notice a gradual increase in small debris on the beaches, especially beaches where marine debris usually washes up," said Keeley Belva, spokeswoman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "But on the other hand, marine debris is always a problem."
Japanese officials estimated last year that the tsunami washed away 20 million to 25 million tons of stuff, from cars to bottle caps to photo albums, into the ocean. Most of it sank just off the Japanese coast, leaving 1 million to 2 million tons to float across the sea.
Of that, only 1percent to 5 percent is expected to wash ashore in Hawaii, Alaska, British Columbia, Washington, Oregon and possibly California, depending on winds and currents. The rest is likely to swirl into one of the five garbage patches scattered across the Pacific.
If tsunami debris does reach the West Coast, it won't be for at least a year, scientists said.
"Are we going to see a massive island of garbage coming our way? That's very unlikely," said Nicholas Mallos, a conservation biologist and marine debris expert with the Ocean Conservancy. "The larger issue is the rest of the trash in the ocean. Debris from the tsunami is a very small part of that."
Ocean trash, which accumulates in giant eddies, is a particular hazard to seabirds such as albatross, fish and whales, which mistake it for food.
"The debris keeps circulating until it breaks up and rains down to the surface of the ocean," said Mary Jane Schramm, spokeswoman for the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. "Then fish mistake it for plankton. They think they're eating food, but really they're being poisoned."
The tsunami debris is a little different from the regular ocean trash, though, because much of it isn't really garbage. It's the personal belongings of people whose lives were devastated by the disaster.
Because of that, officials are asking beachgoers to take note of unusual debris in the coming 18 months. If an item contains Japanese writing or looks like a sentimental possession, the finder should contact the local Japanese consulate or e-mail the oceanic administration at disasterdebris(at)noaa.gov.
Monitoring is already underway at the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary off the coast of San Francisco. The sanctuary works with hundreds of volunteers who regularly comb beaches for debris, dead wildlife and oil, in hopes of giving scientists a solid baseline for the health of the coast.
(Reach Carolyn Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)