Bits and pieces of people’s lives, that is what one reporter said; we are not to think of the Japan tsunami debris field as litter when it washes up on our shores, but rather as bits and pieces of people’s lives.
Others have not been so eloquent or mindful in their description, referring to the 20 million tons or so, of plastic and paper and metal and wood stretching a thousand miles across the Pacific Ocean as simply trash, a floating stream of junk, a garbage patch!
The tsunami debris field floated back into the headlines recently, when a ship spotted the debris much further along its projected course than expected. It's real, it's out there, we are tracking it, and it is, by every measure, an environmental disaster coming our way. So does it really matter what people call it?
I think it does, here’s why:
On the afternoon of March 11, 2011, that garbage patch – those bits and pieces of people’s lives - began their journey toward us as Japan was rocked by the massive Tohoku Earthquake. That earthquake and the tsunami that followed, took 15,700 lives, injured 5,314, and displaced 130,927. It also left nearly 4,647 men, women and children still missing; lost to the sea and to the ages, along with all the bits and pieces that made up their lives.
The force that Mother Nature unleashed that day in Japan is staggering. The Tohoku earthquake was magnitude 9.0, and was one of the five most powerful earthquakes recorded in modern time. By comparison, the Loma Prieta quake of 1989 was magnitude 6.9. It killed 63, and injured 3,757.
As if not to be outdone by the wrath of the shifting earth that day in Japan, the ocean too roared with the fury of the ensuing tsunami that reached wave heights of up to 42 feet. At its peak surge, the tsunami rose to a maximum of 132.5 feet, and travelled up to six miles inland.
And so began the journey of those bits and pieces of people’s lives.
We all watched it unfold while sitting safely in our homes; surreal as it was and so far away. Then the sirens sounded and the evacuation orders became real as the tsunami’s surge hit the Santa Cruz harbor 14 hours later. Suddenly, it wasn’t so far away, it was hitting home, our home!
We were on the merciful end of the tsunami that wreaked havoc in Santa Cruz, Crescent City, and other points along the West Coast. I say that because on the other end - the end of the tsunami that ravaged Japan - it was cruelly lethal. People’s lives became nothing more than bits and pieces to be swept up by the tsunami, pulled back into the ocean, and lost forever.
Now another surge is coming to the West Coast. This time carrying the bits and pieces of the Tohoku victim’s lives; lives that were taken, lives that were lost, lives that are still missing and missed by those whom they loved and who loved them.
The environmental threat we face as the tsunami debris field continues its somber journey toward the West Coast is all too real, and will require a monumental cleanup effort to avoid an even greater environmental catastrophe. But I beg you to consider - just for a moment - the victims of this horrific natural disaster. Don’t blame them for the garbage or the stream of junk coming our way. They didn’t litter our beaches, or intentionally dump debris or discharge waste into the ocean.
If you must place blame, blame Mother Nature for her violent tantrum that sent these bits and pieces of people’s lives drifting our way. As the debris field approaches, ask yourself: How many bits and pieces are there to your life? How many bits and pieces make up your family? How many bits and pieces hold your neighborhood, your community, your city together?
The tsunami debris field did not come from the infamous Pacific Gyre and should not be confused with the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It is quite profoundly the remnants of a human tragedy, slowly drifting toward us in silence, just as silent as its youngest, most innocent victims,who perished that day.
To love the sea is to know the sea is to respect the sea, and until the sea gives up these bits and pieces of people’s lives by returning them to shore, there can be no closure.
I hope upon reflection, all will agree that these bits and pieces of people’s lives deserve a moment of solemnness and dignity, as the first wave of tsunami debris begins washing up on our shores. We have time to organize a fitting, symbolic act of closure, as the main body of the debris field isn’t expected to hit the West Coast until sometime in late 2013 or early 2014.
To the blue community: ocean conservation advocates; marine life protectors; plastic pollution revolutionaries; and environmentalists - you who are all so passionate and committed to caring for and protecting our oceans and ridding our shores of such litter - will you channel your environmental passion into an act of humanitarian compassion to help bring closure for the people of Japan, before we set out on the daunting task to clean up the bits and pieces of their families and friends lives from our shores?
I hope so.