Beach walkers keeping eye out for tsunami debris
By BOB NORBERG
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
For a decade, Cea Higgins has combed Salmon Creek Beach to pick up garbage, but she and other habitual beach-walkers now have an
added mission: watching for debris from the Japan tsunami that is headed for the West Coast.
“It is early right now, but my prediction is that come the storms this winter, that is when we will see the debris,” Higgins said.
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Higgins, a member of the Sonoma Coast chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, is a volunteer beach-walker trained by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to collect and catalog tsunami debris.
Debris from the March 2011 earthquake-spawned tidal wave has already been found in Washington and Oregon, but so far there has been no verified tsunami debris found along the California coast, said Sherry Lippiatt, a marine debris specialist for the national agency.
Even a bottle with Japanese writing that was found Thursday at Salmon Creek Beach is not necessarily from the tsunami.
“We have gotten a number of potential sightings, but debris from Asia washes up all the time,” Lippiatt said. “With this monitoring program and the types and quantity of debris, hopefully we can detect a change and know if we are getting debris from Japan.”
Lippiatt was at Salmon Creek Beach on Thursday to meet and train volunteers. Salmon Creek is one of 60 monitoring sites along the West Coast and in Alaska and the Hawaiian Islands.
The federal agency is providing trash bags, cameras, tape measures, clipboards and reporting forms to volunteers.
Miki Takada of Santa Rosa, a member of the Stewards of the Redwoods, speaks and reads Japanese and is also available to help determine the origin of debris.
The federal agency has formulated computer models to predict when and where the debris might show up. At this point, all scientists can say for sure is that there is a debris field now north of Hawaii and it is being driven by wind and currents toward the West Coast, Lippiatt said.
“We don’t know what to expect. There are so many unknowns, what was washed out and what will sink,” Lippiatt said.
So far, a 20-foot boat has washed up in Washington and a 66-foot pier has washed up in Oregon.
Higgins, a surfer, said for her it is a matter of safety to get the debris out of the water.
But what they collect now will establish a baseline for when the tsunami debris starts really showing up.
Experts say it is highly unlikely that any debris will be radioactive from the failed nuclear power plants and equally unlikely that bodies of victims will show up.
It is not a sense of morbidity that is driving the volunteers to take on the task of looking for tsunami debris.
“I go out almost every day on Doran Beach,” said Darris Nelson of Bodega Bay. “I see the damage debris does on wildlife and birds.”