As debris from last year’s tsunami in Japan now washes up in North America, much of it is also settling into the Pacific Garbage Patch. Stretching northward from the outermost Hawaiian Islands, this swirling gyre of trash is estimated to be twice the size of Texas and growing. Now more debris from the Japan disaster is appearing near Midway Atoll, 2500 miles southeast of Tokyo.
The Japanese government estimates that as many as 25 million tons of waste from houses, boats and automobiles were washed out to sea in the aftermath of the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Two-thirds of it settled off Japan’s coast. But the International Pacific Research Center (IPRC) has run computer simulations that suggest a vast blanket of debris will settle across the Pacific from Asia to North America, even reaching the Philippines and Alaska. Most of it will sink or degenerate into tiny bits of plastic that will form a thin film at the ocean’s surface, and one to two million tons of it will settle within the Pacific Garbage Patch.
The quantity of materials that the tsunami dumped into the ocean over a year ago was the equivalent of what gets tossed into the Pacific in just one year. But all that debris from the tsunami into the Pacific Garbage Patch will flow in a slow and patchy pattern. Contrary to the vision of large walls of plastic and wood surging onto shores and into the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the reality is that what was washed away from Japan will gradually trickle to various destinations through 2014.
The result is the continued threat to the Pacific’s ecology. Coral become smothered by plastic, fish are trapped in drifting nets and birds continue to die from eating bits of plastic. And the Pacific Garbage Patch will not be a floating junkyard of memorabilia with random objects like motorcycles or volleyballs. Instead, it will be an oceanic desert with garbage that is difficult to see, but where little except plankton survive.
Photos courtesy Wikimedia Commons (US Navy)