Tsunami debris widens Pacific Garbage Patch

Tire found on expedition to Pacific Garbage Patch. (Photo by Stiv Wilson)

Researchers making their first trip through the so-called Giant Pacific Garbage Patch since the 2011 Japan tsunami have concluded that plastic debris from the tragic event is making the patch bigger than ever.

They say it is now 2,000 miles wide.

“The entire North Pacific Gyre is now one giant accumulation zone of plastic pollution,” said expedition leader Marcus Eriksen in a press release.  Large objects the researchers have found include half of a Japanese fishing boat and a fully-inflated tire.

Eriksen led the expedition.  It was organized by 5 Gyres Institute, which he co-founded, and Algalita Marine Research Institute.  Both are nonprofit groups based in Greater Los Angeles.

The 12-member crew set sail from Yokohama, Japan, in June and spent 28 days crossing the Pacific to Hawaii, arriving on July 9. They were on the 72-foot Sea Dragon, chartered from Pangaea Exploration, a group that provides operational support for marine environment work.

The primary expedition objective was to understand the quantity, type and distribution of debris remaining after the March 11, 2011 tsunami, and to understand ecological impacts of debris, the press release said.

Eriksen and the crew encountered a piece of debris, most of it plastic, an average of every 3.6 minutes during 41 hours of timed observations.

“From this point forward, we will see a steady trickle of tsunami debris of all sizes washing ashore,” Eriksen said. In addition to netting sea surface samples to test for microplastics, the crew recorded 820 observations of debris, of which 2 percent represented non-plastic items. “In time, the debris remaining will be mostly plastic and will degrade into smaller fragments until it is indistinguishable from the pre-tsunami plastic pollution already in our seas,” he said in the press release.

Meanwhile, here's an Associated Press report from today: 

Officials are monitoring a large piece of possible tsunami debris that appears to be a barge about 25 miles off Washington state’s coast.

Grays Harbor County Emergency Management Deputy Director Chuck Wallace says the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has been tracking the debris moving along the coast near Westport, Wash., for about a week. Officials don’t when or where it might wash ashore.

Other pieces of tsunami debris that have hit North America’s shores include boats, soccer balls and a shipping container holding a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. In June, a 66-foot dock ripped loose by the big waves landed on Agate Beach near Newport, Ore.