Scientists search Southeast beaches for tsunami debris

Five NOAA scientists are scouting Southeast Alaska beaches for debris from last year’s Japanese tsunami.

The team left Ketchikan on Friday aboard the 80-foot charter vessel Sumdum, with plans to explore the shoreline along the outer coast.

Jeep Rice, of Juneau’s Auke Bay Lab, calls it a preliminary assessment.

“I guess a part of us hope we find lots of debris and another part of us hope we don’t find any,” Rice says. “That would be just a cool thing if we don’t find any debris.”

But that’s not likely, even without tsunami debris that’s been washing up on West Coast shores for several months now. Rice expects a peak next winter, but estimates it could continue coming ashore for a decade.

The scientists are heading to the southern tip of Baranof Island, where Rice says the Sumdum will take a right turn and go north.

Jacek Maselko, of the Auke Bay Lab, is the chief scientist on the Sumdum. He charted the beaches to be studied from ShoreZone, NOAA Fisheries’ coastal map website.

“This is a visual map along with photos that are supporting of every single kilometer of beach in Southeast Alaska,” Rice says.

Maselko conducted what Rice calls a “pre-survey survey,” virtually “flying” all the beaches on the website.

“And he finds pocket beaches, for example, that may be up to a kilometer long or even 200 to 300 yards long where you could land a zodiac and put a crew of two or three on,” he says. “We’re going to hit a whole bunch of these pocket beaches as they go from south to north.”

The scientists are expected to wrap up the Southeast debris survey on Sunday. Rice says they will conduct similar surveys on other Alaska coastlines this summer and repeat them next year.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has 40 years of data from Alaska beaches, but this is the first effort to account for debris from the March 2011 Japanese tsunami.

“We have an idea how the debris has shifted from trawl web back in the ’70s, to all these plastic bottles showing up on shore and of course we saw none of those back in the ’70s or ’80s,” he says. “You know times change and debris changes so now we’re going to have another dramatic change in debris with things coming from Japanese aquaculture farms and debris from cities that were destroyed.”

Rice says the scientists will be counting any tsunami-related debris they find, taking pictures then cataloging it. After the data is collected, NOAA will determine whether and how to clean it up.

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