By Dan Cooke
HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) – Scientists at the University of Hawaii are talking trash… Tsunami trash, that is.
More than 20 million tons of trash was deposited into the Pacific Ocean last March when a tsunami ravaged coastal areas around Japan, a mind-boggling amount considering that's around ten times the amount that usually winds up in the Pacific each year.
Scientists believe some of that trash is floating towards the Hawaiian Islands, and concern for Hawaii's environment and our maritime industry is growing.
Nikolai Maximenko, of the International Pacific Research Center at the University of Hawaii, has been studying ocean currents for more than twenty years. He and colleague Jan Hafner have been tracking the tsunami trash since the beginning, and they believe some of the debris will wind up along the shores of remote islands in the Pacific.
"Debris released east of North Japan will start moving towards the east and as it disperses with time it will also deviate toward south and subtropical latitudes," Maximenko said. "Lighter pieces have been found by the Russian sailing ship Pallada in September this year already very close to Midway Island."
While twenty tons of trash in the open ocean is undoubtedly hazardous to the environment, ships at sea might also be at risk.
"In respect to a navigational hazard it's just a real concern for vessels going across from the West Coast to Canada to the Far East on the Great Circle Route," said Brad Rimmel of Sause Brothers, a marine transportation company working out of Honolulu and several West Coast ports. "As a mariner, the biggest concern is stuff getting in the props or the rudder and fouling our gear."
The dangerous collection of floating trash has gotten the attention of Chris Woolaway, who recently helped coordinate a cleanup of marine debris at the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. She is concerned about just how problematic 20 tons of garbage in the open ocean might prove to be.
"We don't want a ship to go down, we don't want loss of life, we don't want an environmental disaster and chaos," said Woolaway. "While there is growing concern for Hawaii's maritime industry and Hawaii's environment, many questions remain. How potentially dangerous is this wave of trash and what are we going to do about it?"
Woolaway wonders whether there are more efficient ways to handle the issue.
"Does it make sense to go out and get it and handle it at sea? People are asking, industry folks are asking. Or is it like some folks have said, and just wait until it hits us."
Intensifying the problem is the fact that this is just the beginning of this story. Maximenko believes the tsunami trash will hit us more than once.
After the debris passes to the north and approaches the U.S. mainland, it will likely get caught up in what Maximenko calls a "garbage patch." Once there, it will sit for years, with pieces of the garbage patch regularly breaking away and drifting toward our windward shores.
HawaiiNewsNow will continue to monitor the tsunami trash as it approaches our islands, and let you know about plans to tackle the problem as they develop.
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