Q1. Why could we see
more debris on Oregon’s beaches?
A. In March 2011, a tsunami struck the east coast of Japan
and washed a large amount of debris into the Pacific Ocean. While it was easy
to track with aircraft and satellites for the first few days, much of the
debris—70% of it—soon sank. Some of the remaining debris sank later. Most of
the material that is still floating will never reach land, but some of it has
crossed the ocean blown by wind or carried by ocean currents and washed up on
west coast beaches.
Q2. Where is the
A. It is challenging to tell, exactly. Some of it has
already washed up on the west coast. Tracking the rest out at sea is difficult
because the debris is spread out over an area several times the size of the
United States. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is
coordinating the effort to use satellites, aircraft and ocean-going vessels to
Q3. Some of it has
A. Yes, we're seeing rigid foam, plastic, sealed metal
containers, construction lumber, even small fiberglass boats. While most of it
will never reach the shore, and instead get trapped in a large, circular ocean
current between the US mainland and Hawaii, every storm has the potential to
bring more of it onshore. This has always been true of debris out in the ocean, so not
all the debris is from the tsunami. Check out this website for the most updated
model prediction: http://marinedebris.noaa.gov/tsunamidebris/debris_model.html
Q4. How much tsunami
debris are we seeing?
A. Telling tsunami debris apart from other kinds of marine
debris isn’t easy. A piece of foam or plastic can really be from anywhere (it
was a real problem even before the tsunami). The two annual beach
cleanups—volunteers coordinated by SOLVE, the Oregon Parks and Recreation
Department, and other partners—regularly remove tons of human-made debris. The
rest of the year, we usually gather up debris and throw it away with the rest
of the refuse left by regular visitors. This mixing means we aren't exactly
sure how much new debris we're seeing. We do know people are paying more
attention to debris now, and that we used to get 5-10 reports a month from
citizens concerned about debris, and that now we get 4-5 times that many by
email and phone. Smaller beach cleanups happen all year
long, and since 2012, organizations like Surfrider have held four times as many
cleanups, collecting five times as much trash (details from a March 2013 Powerpoint).
Some beaches, especially on the north coast, are seeing a larger-than-normal
amount of small plastics bits along the wrack line (read related story in Daily Astorian newspaper). Ocean currents are fickle and complex, so some beaches have seen very
On the other hand, we've had a 180+ ton dock, no fewer than
five 15-20' fiberglass boats, and two pieces of a sacred Shinto gate called a torii come ashore since June 2012.
Thousands of Oregonians have made it their family tradition
to help keep beaches clean. Now that people are helping with beach cleanups all
year long, we just need to keep a ready supply of debris bags on hand and
drop-off points funded and open.
Q5. Is tsunami debris
A. There is consensus among scientists that it is highly
unlikely the debris from Japan is radioactive. The International Atomic Energy
Agency began radiation monitoring after the tsunami and as of June 2013 no
radioactive tsunami debris has been detected. NOAA is coordinating regular
monitoring that will continue at least through 2013.
Local authorities have field-tested hundreds of items that
have washed up on the coast and found no radioactive contamination. In some
cases, a few items were sent to public health laboratories for more specific
testing and again, no radioactive contamination was found.
It is possible very low levels of radiation from water leaking out of a damaged power plant in Japan will be detectable on the west coast. According to the science and health experts studying the issue, the amounts will be detectable, but will not affect our health. Read answers to frequently asked questions about radiation from Japan. The Surfrider Foundation also maintains a wiki on the topic.
Oregon Health Authority, Public Health Division has
constantly monitored beach samples for
any higher-than-normal levels of radiation since 2011. Visit the Division's Radiation
Protection Services and check
out their sand monitoring or jump
straight to the data.
Q6. What about toxins
or hazardous liquids? Could the debris contain that?
A. Yes, and this has been the case for years. We already see
barrels, bottles and other containers holding oil and other chemicals a couple
times a year. For the proper way to report hazardous beach debris, please see
Question 9 below.
Q7. So if it’s not
radioactive, and no more or less hazardous than what we already see on the
beach, how will tsunami debris be different?
A. We are seeing uncommon items like small fiberglass boats
and large, plastic net floats. They pose a hazard to navigation, especially to
small vessels. We are also detecting more construction wood, plastic, rigid
foam, and lost fishing gear (photos). It is possible that items
with cultural or personal importance will survive the cross-ocean trip, and we
need to handle this property with respect in cooperation with Japanese
authorities. If you find an object that
you think might be worth more than $100 or could be personal property, please
turn it in to the nearest Oregon State Park office or local law enforcement, or
keep it safe and call 211 to report it by phone, or send an immediate email
with the date, location where found and a photo to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Q8. Is there a chance
that human remains could be in debris that washes ashore?
A. On very rare occasions, human remains are discovered on
the beach following known and unknown incidents, such as accidents and
drownings. It is highly unlikely that any human remains associated with the
Japan tsunami will be located in any debris. There are already processes in
place to deal with human remains found on the beaches. Call 911 or any Oregon
State Police dispatch command center.
Q9. So what do I do
if I see debris on the beach?
A. Depends on what and where it is.
Litter and other typical marine debris.
Plastic bottles, aluminum cans, buoys, Styrofoam.
If practical, we encourage you to
remove the debris and recycle as much of it as possible. Don’t break up rigid
foam if you can help it, and tie your bag shut when full. Look for a sign near
the parking lot as you head down to the beach that tells you where to leave
debris bags after you fill them. If you can’t remove the debris from the beach
yourself, please move it far enough away from the water so it doesn’t wash back
out at high tide. Use your judgment. And if you see a significant amount of
debris or anything you think might be related to the tsunami, send an email
with the date, location and photos to email@example.com
or call 211 while on the coast.
for the south coast
Some areas of dry sand on the south
coast are closed to protect nests for the threatened western snowy plover. Do not enter these marked closure areas. If marine debris becomes a
problem there, government agencies will organize cleanups when it will be least
harmful to the birds. Snowy plovers are protected under the federal Endangered
Derelict vessel or other large debris item.
Adrift fishing boat, shipping containers.
Call 911 in an emergency. If the
debris is a hazard to navigation, call 211 while on the coast and you will be
connected with the US Coast Guard. Do not attempt to move or remove vessels.
Mementos or possessions.
Items with unique identifiers, names, or markings.
If an item can 1) be traced back to
an individual or group and 2) has personal or monetary value, call 211 to
report it or send an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
so we can make appropriate arrangements for return of items to Japan.
Potential hazardous materials.
Oil or chemical drums, gas cans, propane tanks.
Call 211 and you will be connected
to the US Coast Guard’s National Response Center. Report as much information as
possible. Do not touch the item or attempt to move it.
Q10. So what’s Oregon
doing to handle unusual amounts of debris?
A. A partnership of agencies and nonprofits are working with
coordination help from Oregon Emergency Management and NOAA—the lead federal
agency—to manage the increase in beach debris. By working together—SOLVE,
Surfrider Foundation, Sea Grant, CoastWatch, Washed Ashore, US Coast Guard and
other federal agencies, your local counties, cities and ports, and state
departments of Environmental Quality, Parks, and Fish and Wildlife—we are all
pitching in to collect debris and dispose of it through recycling and landfills.
Q11. Is there
something more I can do now to help?
A. Sure is. Human-made debris on the beach is a constant
problem. Work with the Oregon Shores Conservation Coalition’s Coast Watch
program, join the two annual beach clean-ups, or
contact a coastal nonprofit like the Oregon chapter of the Surfrider Foundation. Even without the possibility of extra debris, keeping beaches clean
is a challenge Oregon can only meet with help from her citizens.
Q12. Where can I go
for more information?
A. For Oregon-specific information:
Oregon Emergency Management
P.O. Box 14370, Salem, OR
Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife
3406 Cherry Avenue N.E., Salem OR
Oregon Parks and Recreation
725 Summer St NE, Salem OR 97301,
Department of Environmental
811 SW 6th Avenue. Portland OR
Health Department (Health Security,
Preparedness & Response Program):
800 NE Oregon Street, Suite 465-B,
Portland, OR 97232, 971-673-1315
SOLVE: Volunteer opportunities
2000 SW 1st Ave, Suite 400,
Portland, OR 97201, 1-800-333-SOLV
Oregon Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation
Beachapedia page on tsunami debris
Coast Watch (Ocean Shores
Conservation Coalition): Volunteer opportunities
A marine debris reporting app: http://www.marinedebris.engr.uga.edu