Tsunami debris could bring shoes with human remains

An oceanographer warns that beachcombers on the U.S. West Coast may find shoes with human remains as more debris from last year's Japan tsunami washes ashore.

"We're expecting 100 sneakers with bones in them," Curt Ebbesmeyer told a tsunami symposium Monday.

DNA may identify people missing since the March 2011 tsunami.

"That may be the only remains that a Japanese family is ever going to have of their people that were lost," Ebbesmeyer said. "We're dealing with things that are of extreme sensitivity. Emotional content is just enormous. So be respectful."

Ebbesmeyer expects the amount of tsunami debris to peak in October, The Peninsula Daily News reported Wednesday.

Ebbesmeyer is the co-creator of the Ocean Surface Current Simulator computer model, which predicts the movement of ocean flotsam worldwide using known ocean current patterns along with wind speed and direction information provided by the U.S. Navy.

Fast-moving debris from the tsunami, including soccer balls and a shipping container holding a Harley-Davidson motorcycle with Japanese license plates, has already arrived on the shores of North America.

Chasing tsunami debris

A research team from California, meanwhile, is in the middle of a two-part debris chase in the northern Pacific Ocean. Their mission is to find out exactly what is out there so they can warn coastlines about what to expect in the coming years, said expedition leader Marcus Eriksen.

“In the next year, year and a half, you’re going to begin to see an increase in the amount of debris washing up,” Eriksen said. "Much of the debris that’s subsurface is a little more than halfway across the ocean by now.”

Some of this debris is a risk to coastal reefs and could pose a boating hazard.

“You’re going to have boat hulls overturned or a car tire still on the rim. If a small sailboat hits one of these things, or a shipping container, it can cause some significant damage,” Eriksen said.

The joint research venture comprises scientists from the Algalita Marine Research Institute and the 5 Gyres Institute. The first leg from May 1-21 took the team from the Marshal Islands to Tokyo.

The second leg from Tokyo back to Hawaii leaves June 1. It takes them into the area where most of the tsunami debris is predicted to be at this time.

Researchers believe there is a giant blob of debris is below the surface just north of Midway Atoll halfway across the ocean and possibly thousands of kilometres in diameter.

“We’re going to sail right through the centre off that, skim the sea surface with our nets to see what comes up,” Eriksen said. During the first leg they found bottles, Styrofoam and broken milk crates. They expect to find mostly plastics during the second leg.

“The wood is gone, metals have oxidized and are gone by now, they’ve sunk, what’s left is going to be plastics, the polyethylene and polypropylene, and anything that is trapping air,” said Eriksen.

With files from The Canadian Press