Saturday, April 21, 2012

Olympic Coast Clean-up

A 4:45 am wake up is nothing to be trifled with, and I loathed it as the alarm popped off this morning. But even in my morning haze I had to admit that I was a bit excited. From 2003-2006, when I worked for the Surfrider Foundation, I worked every year to pull off the Olympic Coast clean-up, and this morning I woke up and headed out to the coast for this year's event, my first since those SF days. Along with a group from ONP and The Surfrider Foundation's South Sound Chapter I manned the registration booth handling Rialto Beach (including the cove north of hole-in-the-wall), First Beach, Second Beach and Third Beach. While I am as in to cleaning beaches as the next person I had a secondary goal - use the observations of the 100+ people volunteering their time to examine two questions: First, can we use the data collected during the clean-up to identify "collector" beaches - places that, because of the vagaries of wave hydrodynamics or nearhshore currents collect relatively more stuff than other beaches. There is great interest on the outer coast in this question because of its potential importance in planning for an oil spill. Next, given the volume of reports coming in that seem to suggest the arrival of significant quantities of tsunami-related debris on our coast, I was interested to observe the debris pulled off of these beaches - would we see more than we have in the past? Would we see a lot of debris with Japan? Note: Check out this article about some of the first CONFIRMED beach debris from the tsunami in Alaska. First questions first. In talking to volunteers as they returned it immediately became clear that, of the beaches considered, Second Beach seemed a good candidate to be a "collector". Multiple volunteers talked about coming upon significant collections of trash, and one party described spending two hours on a 200' section of beach. I wanted to take this further. Each volunteer collects data as they clean the beach, and I was able to quickly enter a few key bits: How many people in their party, how many hours they were on the beach, and their estimate of the weight of debris removed from the beach. Using this data I was able to estimate the total weight removed from a particular beach during the day, the total effort on the beach (in person-hours) and I then was able to measure the total length of the beach from Google Earth. This allowed me to calculate a metric that, while, rough, provides some estimate of the debris removed from the beach for a give effort and distance. I think of it as the beaches "debris production". And, using the magic of Excel for quick plotting, voila...
Shown here are mean production rates, by party, with the error bars showing the standard error of that mean. The pattern suggests that, indeed, Second Beach may have a higher debris production than Rialto (though its not a significant difference). Third Beach looks higher, but I had only one sample for that beach - one party that reported their information to me, so that number should be considered suspect since there was, not unsurprisingly, lots of variability between parties. And we didn't end up with any parties on First Beach today since it was cleaned yesterday, so I couldn't include it. But in the end I like the method - and we may actually be able to discern some meaningful patterns if we can do this analysis on clean-up data going back to 2003... On to question two - I had sort of a vague hypothesis going into today - that if the reports of buoys and other large floaty objects washing up on our coast were from the tsunami, that it might be reasonable to suspect that other relatively floaty things - particularly bottles, would be found as well in relatively large numbers. In other words, we might expect to see a disproportionate number of plastic bottles collected from the beach from Japan, as compared to other locations. At the end of the day we had a flat bed truck full of bags of bottles sorted for recycling - there was my sample - and I spent about an hour going through it.
Certainly we found objects that we tentatively sourced to japan based on visible script (particularly buoys and bottles). I didn't have the time for real quantification (though such a project would be very useful) and was forced into some broad estimation, but my guess is that about 25% of the bottles were definitely from asia, 25% appeared to be local (i.e. from the U.S. and probably either from land-based sources or nearshore boats) and about 50% had no discernible markings, making it impossible to determine their source. As an aside, a few were particularly interesting. We suspect that these two were from the Middle East and Russia, respectively:
But back to Japan...of the 25% of the bottles that I had some confidence were from asia I could positively identify some bottles from Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong and the Phillipines, usually based on a bit of English here and there, or in some cases, like this bottle from Hong Kong, from the country code on the URL on the label:
Other bottles we tentatively sourced to China and Japan based on the script (noting, however, that none of us had ever studied those languages). Here are a few examples of those:
Notably, though, of all of those bottles from Asia (an estimated 25% of the total) there didn't seem to be any type or script that was dominant. Additionally, there seemed to be no more bottles, or debris in general (based on my recollection), than in any other clean up year that I've been involved with. Other debris patterns also didn't point to a significant load (i.e. outside the normal baseline) from Japan. We were given a set of photos of buoys tentatively associated with the tsunami debris, which all volunteers were asked to look for and track separately. Of the buoy types that we were asked to identify (6 of them) we did find some, including two of the rabbit ear type:
and at least 1 of a big round polysterene type that you can see in the back right corner of the flatbed truck in the photo above. We also found two large containers that looked vaguely like types associated with Japan, but they were blue and of a different configuration than the ones in the photos we were provided:
This is all just observational evidence, and certainly not a proper test of the hypothesis above. But again, given some of the accounts that I've heard, part of me was expecting a fairly significant debris signal from Japan already, and I don't feel that we saw that at all. Not a surprise I suppose, models suggest the bulk of it will arrive later this year at the earliest...but some of the comments and observations I've heard of late have led me to believe that observers were seeing a lot of items on the beach already from the tsunami. We certainly can't say that we saw that today. As an aside, if anyone does read Japanese or Chinese, I can send the photos I took today of bottles - it would be interesting to confirm their source. Email me at


Jake Ellison said...

Hello - this is Jake Ellison, online editor at - I'm wondering if we can use some of your photos of what appears to be debris from the Japanese tsunami. Also, if you're interested, email me a contact number so perhaps a reporter here can talk with you about your experience this weekend.



Rod said...

Rialto may well collect as much debris as 2nd or 3rd Beaches? But beachcombers informally clean up Rialto throughout the winter, because it is most accessible, and there's an NPS dumpster at the parking area year-round.

Other than a few large (40-gal) oyster farm floats, little unusual tsunami-related debris was found at Ozette area or Shi Shi, either. Next year!