March 11, 2011 brought a 9.0 earthquake off the Pacific coast of Tōhoku. Occurring at 14:46 JST, the undersea earthquake was not only the fifth most powerful earthquake recorded in the world but the most powerful earthquake to have happened in Japan. The earthquake was so large that the sound waves generated by the quake were detectable by a low orbiting satellite and the earth was shifted on its axis by 10-25 cm. In addition, the earthquake triggered a tsunami which traveled as far as 10 km inland, reaching heights of 40.5 meters. In all, more than 15,000 people died as a result of the earthquake and the tsunami. The tsunami was, in fact, more destructive and deadly than the actual earthquake. Three years later, debris from the Japan tsunami is still washing up in the United States.
Waves from the tsunami swept away cars, planes, and houses. Over 100 routes which were designated as tsunami evacuations routes were engulfed by the wave. Towns were destroyed, bridges were damaged and many, many people were washed away. Tsunami waves were experienced all over the Japan coastline with the beginning wave hitting about 30 minutes after the earthquake. Even today, three years later, debris from the tsunami is still being washed ashore in the United States after traveling all the way from Japan.
The tsunami waves were not only confined to Japan. The Hawaiian Pacific Tsunami Warning Center issued announcements and watches for a number of Pacific locations, including an all-inclusive warning which covered the entire Pacific Ocean. In Russia, approximately 11,000 people were evacuated from the Kuril Islands. The United States issued warnings for all of Oregon, the western areas of Alaska, and most of the coastal California areas. California and Oregon experienced tsunami waves up to 2.4 m high which caused at least $10 million in damages.
Many other places were affected by the tsunami waves. The Midway Atoll, part of a chain of islands from Hawaii to the Aleutian Islands has been a National Wildlife Refuge since 1988. Approximately 110,000 nesting seabirds were wiped out due to tsunami waves. Peru saw housing damage as did Chile and the Galápagos Islands. Antarctica experienced icebergs breaking off of the Sulzberger Ice Shelf. The debris and wreckage from the tsunami began to spread across the ocean.
In April 2012, a soccer ball was found washed up on Middleton Island in Alaska, but it has since been returned to Japan and its 16-year-old owner. In British Columbia, Canada, a Japanese motorcycle was found. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) estimates over 1.5 million tons of debris was washed into the Pacific Ocean. A team from the International Pacific Research Center, led by Nikolai Maximenko, established a debris-tracking model. The lightest objects such as bins and soccer balls were wind-driven and were the first to reach outlying areas such as Hawaii. Just last year a wave of objects much heavier and therefore not pushed so easily by the wind were washed ashore. Near Kawela Bay a 20-foot skiff was beached. A wooden dock landed in Oregon.
While scientists didn’t believe that any living organism would be able to make the trip from Japan across the Pacific, it turns out that they were wrong. To date, at least 165 non-native species have been found on debris and categorized. Among these creatures is the northeastern sea star in addition to algae commonly used in the making of miso soup. The European blue mussel which was long ago brought to Asia has also made its way across the ocean on debris. Marine scientists have never seen some of these species in the United States and, according to reports, do not wish to see it now. It will only be later and with additional research that scientists will be able to tell if any of the 165 species from Japan found three years later on the tsunami debris washed up here in the United States are invasive. Meanwhile, more debris is expected to land and the NOAA continues to monitor and track the movements of what debris can be located.
By Dee Mueller