Where is the Japanese tsunami debris? Only the albatrosses know

In spite of computer models that predict where March 11, 2011, Japanese tsunami debris should be right now, wildlife biologist Pete Leary at the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge reports no increase in debris at Midway as of early March 2012. He said there had been minimal impact so far, especially on Midway’s seabird population. On March 5, 2012, Leary said:

There is nothing out of the ordinary washing up on our beaches. The ocean currents are keeping the debris north of us and we haven’t really been getting strong winds from the north this winter, which could blow some lighter debris our way, so as of now, we’re not seeing anything.

In late February 2012, he said:

In the last few months, no one has sighted a big patch of debris close to Midway. This year [2012], we haven’t had a lot of north wind, which would push that debris south toward us. We always have plastic washing up onshore, and this year we are seeing about the same amount of plastic as usual. Nothing is certain: refrigerators or even a Japanese house could still wash up on our beaches. But we don’t expect it.

Over the last 12 months – since debris from the 2011 Japanese tsunami broke up, dispersed and sank – scientists have lost sight of the debris. Immediately after the tsunami, satellite imagery pinpointed large fields of floating debris, but by April 14, 2011, it had dispersed to a point where it was no longer visible with low resolution cameras. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Marine Debris office reports that debris sightings at sea have consistently gone down in number with a high of approximately 100 sightings in July, 2011, down to zero sightings in December, 2011. NOAA said:

The debris is no longer in a ‘debris field.’ Rather, there are many items scattered across a large area of the North Pacific.

NOAA scientists and other scientists know that much of the reported 25 million tons of debris is still in the ocean, but where?

The March 2011 tsunami toll on wildlife at the Midway Atoll

Has debris from 2011 Japan earthquake reached Midway Atoll?

Click here to expand image above

Albatrosses that soar over the northern Pacific Ocean might be the only ones who are seeing the Japanese tsunami debris.

That’s because albatrosses regularly sift and sort floating trash when they land on the sea surface to feed. They might also be the ones to bear the brunt of the damage from the Japanese debris. Wonder and Golden, two newly hatched albatross chicks on Midway Atoll, know nothing about the Japanese tsunami and even less about the debris. But the world is watching to see how they — and their species — fare.

Laysan and Short-Tailed Albatrosses typically fly hundreds of miles in search of squid-rich areas northwest of Midway to feed before returning to regurgitate food for their chicks. Anything that is squid-sized or smaller and floats on the ocean’s surface might be eaten by the albatrosses and then fed to their chicks.

The most common debris eaten is plastic because it isn’t biodegradable and is lightweight enough to float. Scientists regularly find carcasses of albatross chicks and an examination shows its stomach is full of plastic. In effect, the chick starved to death because its stomach had no room for food. Leary said:

A child’s plastic sand shovel is squid-sized. But typically we see smaller objects like cigarette lighters or bottle caps. The albatrosses could be eating debris from the Japanese tsunami, but we have no evidence either way, yet. Only time will tell.

Bottom line: Computer models have predicted that debris from the March 11, 2011 Japan earthquake and tsunami should be striking Midway Atoll beaches in early 2012, but wildlife biologist Pete Leary at the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge reports no increase in debris at Midway as of early March 2012. If and when the debris does arrive at Midway, the island’s albatross population will be among the first to find it.

Two famous albatross chicks on Midway Atoll in 2012

Oldest known wild bird in U.S. became a mother again, and survived March 2011 tsunami

March 11, 2012

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Darcy Pattison

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