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November 1, 2011 / Dave Gorham

West Coast Targeted by 20 Million Tons of Hazardous Debris – Or is It? Here’s Why

An enormously large field of floating debris has been spotted in the North Pacific, and it’s heading toward the West Coast of the United States. Some 20 million tons of debris, ripped away from northern Japan in April of this year, is heading for the shores of the U.S. Early estimates had the debris reaching the U.S. shores within three years (based on a speed of advance of 5-10 miles per day). Based on recent reports however, this floating city of rubbish, houses, vehicles, coolers, plastic, appliances, wood and even toxic waste is moving faster than first thought.

The first thing I thought about was ocean current and the North Pacific Gyre (NPG). Because of the gyre and its general flow parallel to the California Coast, would any/most/all of the debris actually reach California? And, were the experts really just moving the debris field along without consideration to current and weather? Both would certainly have an impact on the advance of the debris, and though one may be fairly regular to predict, the other is not — at least not when considering the next three years. Is three years until arrival an accurate expectation?

Great circle distance from Tokyo to San Francisco is about 5,100 miles. Adrift, an object covering five miles of advance per day would take 1,020 days — or not quite three years — to travel across the Pacific Ocean. It would seem that’s how the original three-year estimate was formulated.

Tsunami debris showing a large boat (among other things), mid-Pacific, photographed from Russian training vessel. Click to enlarge. Photo: ABC

Of course, it’s not that simple. Weather patterns can slow or increase that advance. Ocean currents such as the NPG can also enhance or hinder an object’s progress across the ocean, or even change its direction.

The North Pacific Gyre tends to create a zone that traps floating debris that endlessly laps the central North Pacific waters. Already tremendously large, will the Great Pacific Garbage Patch grow even larger thanks to the debris washed into the Pacific following the Japanese earthquake and tsunami in April? Click to enlarge. Image: Wikipedia

It’s possible that some or most of the tsunami debris may never reach the western U.S. thanks to the NPG. This nearly closed circulation pattern in the central North Pacific has trapped an almost unimaginably large field of garbage, mainly floating and/or suspended pieces of plastic, in a never-ending cycle referred to as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP).  While scientists consider how (or if) the GPGP can be cleaned up, what exactly will become of the tsunami debris is uncertain for now.

One thing is certain: any clean-up effort that attempts to address all of the debris, either the plastic already within the gyre or the tsunami debris, will have to be massive. Currently, experts have attributed the size of the GPGP at about twice the size of Hawaii, though initial estimates considered an area the size of the continental U.S.  Most of the composition of the GPGP is decomposed (and decomposing) plastic and it’s impossible to see from satellites above, which would explain the huge swing in size estimates. Much of it too, is suspended below the surface.

The second thing I wondered is, how broad is the tsunami debris? I’ve yet to see an estimate put forth in square mileage, but the weight is considered from as “little” as five million tons to as much as 20 million tons.

I find it amazing that observers can look at such an expansive field of debris and hazard a guess as to its weight, but they rely on elementary statistics for guidance. As with anything so large, an estimate of size would start small: in this area I can see X number of this, XX number of that, XXX number of the other thing. If it’s determined that this is a representative area, then generalizations can be made about the group as a whole.

Hungry? If the 20 million tons of tsunami debris floating in the Pacific were converted to McDonald's Quarter Pounders, your share would be 23 of them. Photo: McDonald's

But what exactly is 20 million tons? To start, it’s 40,000,000,000 pounds (that’s billion). It’s 160 billion Quarter Pounders* from McDonald’s — or almost 23 of the burgers for every single person on the planet.  What else? I’ve researched a few very heavy things from various internet sources — is it really possible that the equivalent of 8.5 million pickup trucks are floating in the North Pacific?

Doing the math, here’s what 20 million tons looks like:
8,500,000 2012 Ford F-150s @ 2.34 tons each
2,162,162 African Elephants @ 9.25 tons
222,222 Giant Sequoia trees @ 90 tons
102,564 Blue Whales @ 195 tons
41,067 Boeing 747-81s @ 487 tons (max take-off weight with fuel and passengers)
10,000 Space Shuttles @ 2,000 tons (with fuel, but without payload – and minus one that should go to Houston)
182 USS Nimitz-class aircraft carriers @ 110,000 tons
55 Empire State Buildings @ 365,000 tons
3.3 Great Pyramids @ 6,000,000 tons
1/5 of the North Pacific Garbage Patch @ 100,000,000 tons

What’s next? That’s the third thing I thought. The experts haven’t yet figured out what to do with the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, so I think it may be some time before a course of action regarding the tsunami debris is formulated. I hope it doesn’t fall into the “We’ll cross that bridge when we have to” category (or perhaps, the “We’ll eat our 23 Quarter Pounders when we need to” category). I’d like to think a solution will be reached sooner, rather than later. Unlike the decomposing material locked with the North Pacific Gyre (hazardous in its own right), what’s floating eastward from Japan is exponentially more hazardous to humans, shipping and environment — whether it reaches the U.S. Coast, or not.

* Actual weight of hamburger patty before cooking.

YourWeatherBlog has written about ocean currents before (It’s the Salt’s Fault), as well as the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami (Earthquakes of JapanWhy So Much Tsunami Damage)

[Originally posted October 26, 2011]

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