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Houses swept from Japan about to reach our shores

Nov 10 2011
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Photograph by: ., timescolonist.com

The largest items swept out to sea following the Japanese tsunami in March could arrive on the B.C. coastline within days, oceanographer Curt Ebbesmeyer predicted Wednesday.

The main part of the 20-million-tonne debris field, equivalent in size to the state of California, isn't expected until about 2014. But houses, fishboats and small freighters, carried by wind, could already be close to our shores, Ebbesmeyer said.

"We just finished running a simulation with a drifter, a buoy that got lost in the area of the tsunami, and we find that the first of the debris would be here now," Ebbesmeyer said.

Beachcombers along the west coast of B.C. should be on the lookout and report any unusual finds, he said.

Ebbesmeyer is a Seattle-based oceanographer, educated at the University of Washington, who tracks flotsam using computer models. He has consulted for multinational firms, working on projects such as the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico last year.

The March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Japan prompted Ebbesmeyer and fellow oceanographer

Jim Ingraham to run computer simulations on the path of debris carried out to sea by the tsunami.

Debris moves faster if it is exposed to the wind, Ebbesmeyer said.

"People who base their results on satellite-tracking buoys get a slower speed than those of us who track Nike shoes and hockey gloves and airplane wings," Ebbesmeyer said.

Researchers Nikolai Maximenko and Jan Hafner at the International Pacific Research Center in Hawaii are monitoring the debris field through computer models and ship reports.

Hafner said Wednesday that wind-blown flotsam isn't part of his research. He said ocean currents will deliver a significant amount of plastic to this area in 2013 or 2014. The majority will remain in a North Pacific "garbage patch," where swirling currents surround a vast amount of seaborne junk.

The crew of a cargo ship near Midway Island spotted an 18-foot vessel in the debris field, Hafner said.

The Japanese have immense respect for belongings such as fishboats, said Ebbesmeyer, predicting an influx of Japanese tourists coming to B.C. to see washed-up debris. "When people find something on the beach, they are literally putting their hands on something that a family wants to know about," he said.

A Japanese fishboat that washed ashore in Prince Rupert several years ago has become a shrine to fishermen lost at sea, he said.

Tofino beachcomber Barry Campbell can relate. A few years ago, he found a sealed bottle on the beach containing a note written by students at a Japanese school.

He wrote to the school "and got a huge stack of letters from each individual class," most of them in Japanese.

Ebbesmeyer is asking anyone seeing floating debris of an unusual nature to take a photograph and send it to him through his website at flotsametrics.com.

A Transport Canada spokeswoman said contingency plans are in the works to deal with debris that might pose navigational hazards in Canadian waters.

smcculloch@timescolonist.com

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