There are 1.5 million tons of tsunami debris being carried by currents from Japan. And we're already seeing some of it wash up on our shores in the western United States: a 60-foot long piece of dock from the Japanese city of Misawa washed ashore in Oregon last month.
And earlier this year, a shipping container with a Harley Davidson motorcycle inside turned up on the coast of British Columbia. But tracking the debris is a major challenge.
"There's stuff that is sub-surface, like this car tire that I found, I found a metal propane tank as well. These things are subsurface, they haven't gone a couple thousand miles off of japan's coast," said Marcus Erikson, researcher at the Algalita Marine Research Foundation in Long Beach. "So we're not going to see this big wave of debris hitting our coastlines anytime soon, its going to be this slow trickle."
Erikson and his team travelled 4,000 miles between Tokyo and Hawaii to survey the surface debris. The purpose of their mission is to use the unique, yet tragic, opportunity to study how materials are affected by the ocean and vice versa.
"We've been looking at the impact of plastic pollution in the world's oceans. What the tsunami has given us, of course its this horrible tragedy, but it's a unique opportunity to learn something. You don't get to repeat the experiment of putting an entire city in the ocean to see what happens," said Erikson.
He says that organic materials swept out to sea like wood or trees are no longer around because they've biodegraded, however there are some materials that are widely apparent.
"What's left out there is mostly plastic," said Erikson. "We saw tons of plastic bottles, broken bits of boats, lots of foam like styrofoam out to sea, so we're studying what happens to materials over time."
Marcus Erikson, researcher at the Algalita Marine Research Foundation in Long Beach, and executive director of 5 Gyres Institute. He's been leading an independent expedition to try to track the debris.