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The Lasting Impact of Natural Disasters

What can 28,000 rubber duckies teach us about the impact of natural disasters on our world? A lot, actually! In 1992, a shipping crate with more than 28,000 duckies was lost while travelling in the Pacific. Today, the duckies continue to wash up on shores around the world.

By making landfall everywhere from Hawaii and Australia to Alaska and Scotland, this flotilla of rubber duckies is showing scientists how ocean currents transport garbage around the world. The duckies also help explain how debris from Japan’s 2011 tsunami is making its way to American soil – and why the impact of ecological disasters is further reaching than scientists previously thought.

On March 11, 2011, a 9.0 earthquake rocked the coast of Honshu, Japan’s most populous island. This quake churned up 130-ft high tsunami waves that swept away towns and farmland. The quake also damaged the Fukushima nuclear reactor, sending officials scrambling to avoid a nuclear meltdown and rendering the town uninhabitable due to radiation levels. One year later, on March 12, 2012, the Japanese government confirmed that the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster caused more than 15,861 deaths.

The World Bank estimates that damage from the quake could cost $235 billion, making it the most expensive natural disaster in world history.

Thanks to the tsunami, an estimated one to two million tons of debris is floating across the Pacific toward America’s coastline. From lumber and fishing boats to clothing and refrigerators, debris swept out to sea by the tsunami is expected to make landfall in the Hawaii islands and Pacific atolls starting this winter. The garbage is expected to hit the coasts of Oregon,Washington, Alaska and Canada sometime between March 2013 and March 2014.

Nikolai Maximenko, an ocean currents expert at the University of Hawaii, estimates that only 1 to 5 percent of total tsunami debris will actually make landfall on the U.S. and Canadian coasts. The majority will join the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”, a swirling junkyard of plastic debris and other trash floating in the Pacific. The trash is estimated to cover an area the size ofTexas. Specific measurements are difficult, however, since the garbage patch is not one solid mass, but billions of separate trash islands, making clean up difficult to impossible.

Heavy Duty

And it’s not just small, light garbage that will potentially float over to U.S. shores. In June of this year, a 66-foot-long floating dock made of concrete and steel floated ashore on a beach inOregon. In addition to a metal placard naming the manufacturer and dated June 2008, the dock also brought with it a starfish native toJapanamong the marine life clinging to the dock.

While the shipwrecked rubber duckies have developed a devoted following, the plastic garbage, fishing gear and lumber that is expected to make landfall next year on American coastlines will hardly be received with so warm a welcome. Instead, this impending trash tsunami is a reminder that natural disasters have a global impact.

From Hurricane Katrina to last year’s quake in Japan, natural disasters leave a mark on our world long after the floodwaters have subsided. These events affect a nation’s economy and psyche, while also reshaping a region’s environment and ecology. And the impact is not limited to the disaster’s point of origin. As theJapan quake shows, their effects are far-reaching. The full impact of an ecological disaster goes beyond natural disaster statistics for damage or rebuilding costs.

This begs the questions:

  • How do the choices we make each day affect our environment or contribute to climate change?

  • Is an empty plastic bottle you used 10 years ago now floating in the Pacific Garbage Patch?

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