What debris from the Japanese tsunami, still washing ashore, can teach us

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The tsunami that struck eastern Japan in 2011 did unthinkable damage, killing more than 15,000 people and leveling more than 129,000 buildings. The damage was so severe that debris from it has been washing up on the West Coast of the United States — more than a thousand miles away — ever since. Japanese officials estimate 1.5 tons of debris is still afloat from the disaster, and that the majority of it will be making landfall this October.

This fascinating article in the New York Times takes a look at the crew of the Sea Dragon, a ship manned by volunteers who are scanning the waters for items set out to sea in the tsunami. Some of their recent finds: a half of a skiff marked with Japanese characters, a Bridgestone tire made in Japan, buckets, crates, fishing buoys, bottles and more. According to the article, the ship is part of a large-scale volunteer effort to collect the debris. While some simply want the flotsam cleaned from the water, others are looking at the pieces of debris as archaeological artifacts, even going as far as to track down the owners of the items.

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The latter mission would certainly appeal to photo retoucher Becci Manson, who gave the recent TEDTalk, “(Re)touching lives through photos.” In her talk, Manson recalled setting up a network to retrieve and restore photographs lost in the tsunami. “I realized that these photos were such a huge part of the personal loss these people felt,” Becci explains. “As they had run from the wave and for their lives, absolutely everything had to be left behind.” (See some of the photos Manson’s team restored, and what the revitalized images meant to their owners, in this TED Blog post.)

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Meanwhile, Captain Charles Moore would no doubt offer a high five to volunteers seeking to skim debris from the ocean. Moore, the founder of the Algalita Marine Research Institute, which co-sponsored the Sea Dragon expedition, gave a talk on the “seas of plastic” at TED2009. In it, he described one of the biggest problems with living in a throwaway culture — the plastic waste that floats through our waterways and out to sea, where it keeps on accumulating. In his talk, Charles described the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” an endless wasteland of floating plastic, which even inspired its own TEDx event, TEDxGreatPacificGarbagePatch.

The Sea Dragon was also co-sponsored by the 5 Gyres Institute. Check out their amazing and well-sourced blog post about the debris being found from the Japanese tsunami, and how it is overwhelmingly plastic.