25 Million Tons of Tsunami Debris Headed Our Way: Is This the End of Beach Volleyball in California?

You can't just keep rolling out sensationalized headlines about this story every couple of months without some "new" news to report along with it. We need accurate, up-to-date information about the tsunami debris and how it might affect our lives.
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The HuffPost's San Francisco edition ran quite an eye catching headline Monday, February 13, 2012.

"AFTERSHOCK: 25 Million Tons of Tsunami Debris Headed Our Way"

Oh really?

One year after the Japan tsunami, the flotsam of misinformation persists.

We read a 20 million ton figure in the HuffPost on October 25, 2011; we read a reference to 20 million tons in The Olympian on November 10, 2011; then we heard about 25 million tons from San Francisco based KGO TV ABC 7 on February 11, 2012; and now we are reading about 25 million tons of Japan tsunami debris in the HuffPost on February 13, 2012.

But where did those reporters get their numbers from? Do you know? I venture a guess most of them don't know either.

It's just not accurate to keep reporting the 25 million ton figure after all these months; and with March 11, 2012, marking the one-year anniversary of this horrific human and environmental catastrophe, it's time for sensationalism to yield to good journalism on this story.

Don't get me wrong, this is a big story which is only going to get bigger as what's left of the tsunami debris reaches the west coast. But it is also a story that is going to slowly evolve over the months and years ahead. And as it does, the reporting on the story needs to mature and evolve as well.

You can't just keep rolling out sensationalized headlines about this story every couple of months without some "new" news to report along with it. We need accurate, up-to-date information about the tsunami debris and how it might affect our environment and our lives; the public expects it and society deserves it.

The good news -- beach volleyball in California is safe for now. The bad news -- Governor Brown's budget cuts mean we are going to need a lot more new volunteers in the next few years to help keep those beaches clean no matter how much tsunami debris arrives.

There is still a lot we don't know, but by now we should all know that there is not 25 million tons of tsunami debris "headed directly toward us."

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has a very informative Japan tsunami marine debris webpage which provides the most up to date scientific information and answers to questions you might have; it also helps dispel some of the "urban myths" you might have read or heard.

The misquoted tsunami debris figure of 25 million tons actually has its origin with the Japan Ministry of the Environment which noted the following:

"The disastrous earthquake and Tsunami on March 11, 2011 has left innumerable disaster waste such as debris and rubble of the smashed houses, buildings and other concrete structures, and scrapped cars and ships... The total quantity of the disaster waste is estimated to amount (to) 25 million tons... "

It is 25 million tons of total debris generated by the Tohoku earthquake and subsequent tsunami -- not 25 million tons of tsunami debris washed out to sea and floating toward the west coast.

The National Police Agency of Japan Emergency Disaster Countermeasures Headquarters keeps up-to-date statistics regarding the loss of life and infrastructure damage from the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. The numbers reflected in those statistics for damaged and destroyed buildings and roads and bridges and railways make up a large portion of the 25 million tons of debris which never made it into the ocean and still lies in piles of rubble and ruin across Japan.

So who is to blame, who is responsible, and who should clean it up? Take a look at NOAA's computer generated animation of the March 11, 2011 Japan tsunami. This was a global event -- a natural disaster that transcended national borders -- the aftermath of which has to be borne by all of us who are touched by the Pacific Ocean.

Don't forget, this was a California tsunami too. The Effect of the 2011 Tohoku Tsunami on the California Coastline: When the tsunami arrived, it caused significant damage to harbors throughout California with Crescent City and Santa Cruz bearing the brunt of the tsunami surge. Damage estimates exceeded $50 million for damage and destruction to boats and docks, including 36 boats sunk.

California dodged a bullet; the tsunami made landfall along the California coast during low tide and this kept coastal inundation to a minimum. If the Tohoku earthquake had happened six hours earlier or later, the first tsunami waves would have arrived during high tide and damages would have been far greater.

If you want to learn more about tsunamis, March 26-30, 2012 is National Tsunami Preparedness Week. Tsunami preparedness information and education material is available from the National Tsunami Hazard Mitigation Program and the California Geological Survey Tsunami website.

If you are concerned about tsunami debris on our beaches, or marine debris in general, the best thing you can do is be informed and become involved.

Want to help? Contact the California Coastal Commission for information about the California Coastal Cleanup Day, or contact organizations like Save Our Shores; Surfrider Foundation; Heal The Bay; for information about local beach cleanup efforts near you. The tsunami debris that washes ashore will undoubtedly include plastic of all types and shapes and sizes. For the bigger picture of what you can do to keep plastic out of our oceans and our environment in the first place, check out the Plastic Pollution Coalition; or 5-Gyres.

If you have information on significant marine debris sightings in the North Pacific Ocean and along the west coast, NOAA wants to know about it. It is helpful to include as much information about the debris as possible. (Example: location, description of items, any significant markings). You can report it to NOAA by e-mail: DisasterDebris@noaa.gov

Would you like to contribute to the collection of baseline marine debris information?
Then consider downloading and using the Marine Debris Tracker smartphone application to record, visualize, and share data. Or, request a NOAA shoreline monitoring protocol by e-mail: MD.monitoring@noaa.gov

NOAA is also consulting with the government of Japan on the best way to return any "bits and pieces of people's lives" that may be found. That's what some of the tsunami debris represents to the family members of those who were lost in this tragic disaster.

If you are interested, you can read more about the human cost of this catastrophe here.

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