Debris from Japanese tsunami washing up onto local shores

SEATTLE -- Debris from last year's earthquake and tsunami in Japan is already washing up on Washington beaches, and much more is expected.

Oceanographer Dr. Curtis Ebbsmeyer said chunks of wood and plastic and other pieces of flotsam from the tsunami will continue to show up on local beaches for years or even decades.

"Debris from Japan, from the tsunami of last March, started arriving last September," he said. "It's unprecedented in recorded history. We have a debris field the size of the state of California."

A number of fishing buoys have already made land, and Ebbsmeyer said that is to be expected.

The idea is that the buoys stick up out of the water, so they travel the fastest, catching the wind and current. They buoys followed what is called the Aleut Gyre, which flows to Washington, or the Turtle Gyre, which cuts across the Pacific and heads south.

The objects traveled 20 miles per day, and after nearly 5,000 miles, some of them were spit out onto the Washington coast by winter storms.

"And if you look closely, these are the buoys that have been washing up," Ebbsmeyer said. "The type one are the large black ones, the type two are the styrofoam, and note the blue covering on the stryofoam."

Beachcomber John Anderson has been exploring area beaches and picking out the most interesting pieces of debris.

Back at his home in Forks, Anderson said he's built a tower of buoys. In just the past month, he said he's found 13 buoys that match the ones pictured in the tsunami debris.

"Yeah, you'll just see them up in the driftwood, laying on the beach by themselves," he said.

In the 36 years he combed the beaches before the earthquake, Anderson said he found exactly six of the buoys.

At the Japanese consulate, Tomoko Dodo is skeptical.

"No one knows if it's from Japan. If those debris, pieces of debris were actually from japan," Dodo said.

NOAA is tracking the larger, slower masses of debris, which could arrive by next winter.

While it's certainly interesting to pick through the debris, Ebbsmeyer said it's important to remember where it came from.

"What we're looking at is the remains of their lives," he said. "And we need to be really respectful, and try to piece together what should go back to the loved ones of these 20,000 people."

Tomoko said if beachcombers find something they're absolutely sure came from the tsunami, they can contact the Japanese consulate.