On Alaskan Beaches, More Foamed Plastic than Sea Foam

Remote cleanups in Alaska are not your typical day at the beach; they’re difficult, physically exhausting and resource intensive. The possibility of debris from last year’s tsunami in Japan is adding to the already difficult task.

For the past six years, volunteers from Gulf of Alaska Keeper (GoAK) have spent hundreds of hours removing thousands of pounds of debris from the remote beaches at Gore Point, Alaska; recently though, cleanups on these beaches look very different. Twelve volunteers from GoAK and the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies (CACS) recently spent six days cleaning roughly two miles of the Gore Point coastline. The cleanup, which was partly funded by a grant from Ocean Conservancy and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and made possible through volunteer labor and donated boats, collected over 90 cubic yards of debris weighing more than 4,000 pounds—enough to fill an entire school bus. Half of that was foamed plastic.

Large, diverse quantities of debris are the norm at typical beach cleanups, but at Gore Point, data forms were dominated by counts of foamed plastic pieces and foam insulation. Combined, foamed plastic accounted for more than one quarter of total debris weight and over half the volume (greater than 45 cubic yards)—an amount nearly four to six times the average amount of foam debris documented during GoAK’s past cleanups. On one particular beach, a 93-fold increase has been recorded in foamed plastic (by weight) between pre- and post-tsunami cleanups. Patrick Chandler, Special Programs Coordinator at CACS and Alaska State International Coastal Cleanup Coordinator described the severity of foam flotsam:

After spending a long day pulling debris from logs, digging it out of sand and hauling it into piles for pickup, the most disheartening thing to see is a section of beach so covered with small bits of foamed plastic that you know it’s hopeless to try to pick it all up.

The likely source of this foam is insulation from buildings that were destroyed by the March 2011 Japan earthquake and tsunami, and foam buoys commonly used in nearshore aquaculture—conjectures confirmed by Japanese marine debris experts. Lightweight debris from the tsunami began arriving last winter, driven by wind across the Pacific Ocean.An adjusted tsunami-debris-tracking model generated by Drs. Maximenko and Hafner at the International Pacific Research Center suggests tsunami debris heavily affected by wind could have arrived on the U.S. West Coast by the end of 2011; confirmed debris sightings in 2012 substantiate these predictions.

Governors and Congressional delegations from the five affected states have been working to call attention to tsunami debris and its potential impacts and to encourage additional resources to address both debris that’s on shore and that which is yet to come. Senators Begich and Cantwell held a hearing in May to assess NOAA’s response efforts to the tsunami. In addition, members of Congress have been actively engaged with NOAA and the Administration to determine how best to respond to the debris.

The outcomes of these dialogues remain uncertain, but one thing is not:  Hundreds of miles of coastline in Alaska remain covered in foamed plastic, and as fall approaches, it becomes less and less likely they will be cleaned. Still, GoAK, CACS and other organizations will continue to lead cleanups throughout the state until winter weather becomes prohibitive. Everyone has a role to play in the debris response – from volunteers on the ground to agencies and Congress bringing attention and resources to the issue – and this cleanup is just one example of how we can all work together to tackle marine debris.

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