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Debris from Japan Tsunami

by Richard Ballantyne, July 12th, 2012

In addition to the usual location and wind conditions report at the Daily Roll Call, this year’s race has an added element – tsunami debris.

The March, 2011 tsunami that affected northern Japan washed enormous amounts of debris out to sea. While most of this debris sank quickly out at sea, much remains on the surface and by ocean current and wind is working its way across the Pacific Ocean. In early days, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) could track the debris slick by satellite, but by early 2012, the debris had become too dispersed to track. News stories have reported containers with motorcycles on Haida Gwaii, whole fishing boats in Alaska, and sections of concrete dock in Oregon. Recent reports are about the struggles of local governments to deal with cleaning up and disposing of flotsam washing up on local beaches.

While the ocean is a big place, it is not uncommon to come across floating debris while crossing what has become to be known as the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”. Material washed from boats and population centers gets trapped in a gyre of ocean currents that circulate to the north of the Hawaiian Islands. This is nothing new and boats going to Hawaii have had to deal with it for years. It is a sad reality that impacts the ocean and its denizens.

The Vic Maui 2012 race fleet has to contend not only with this normal debris, but the added density and danger from debris from the Japan Tsunami. The USDOT issued a warning in April that this debris may pose a significant hazard to navigation and advised mariners that they should be vigilant and maintain appropriate look-out, a warning repeated by the Vic Maui Technical Committee in Notice to Competitors No. 2. 

In order to assist authorities and to provide a means of warning to fellow competitors a scale of observed debris was devised and is being reported during Daily Roll Call. This scale ranks observed debris from 0 to 5: 0=no debris, 1=occasional small and medium debris, 2=regular small and medium debris, 3=regular medium debris, occasional large debris, 4= regular debris of all sizes, 5=constant medium and large debris.

It is a relief that as of the July 11 Roll Call, debris has been mostly reported as 0 – no debris. However, out of 61 observations over 5 days, 34 have reported 1 – occasional small debris, and 2 have reported 2 - regular small and medium debris. More troubling have been the 5 observations of 3 – regular medium debris and occasional large debris. On July 11, Double Take further reported a large metal object 6 ft long as being “very scary”.

So far diligent watch keeping and luck have kept race participants from hitting any objects, and the boats are likely leaving the ocean current path that would have the greatest concentration.

But the story continues. Tons and tons of man-made garbage and debris is floating on our oceans posing real risks to sailors on the oceans and untold difficulty on the creatures and ecosystems that inhabit the ocean. Sad, sad, very sad. 

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