By Matt Higgins
ESPN Action Sports
With debris and radiation from the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan last month drifting across the Pacific Ocean, should surfers in Hawaii and on the West Coast of the United States worry about pollution making its way into their lineups?
In short: Probably not.
“Right now it doesn’t look like that poses a big threat to the West Coast and Hawaii,” Matt McClain, a spokesman for Surfrider Foundation, said about radiation. “If you’re surfing in Japan, obviously there’s a big difference.”
“The immediate area around Fukushima will be off-limits for awhile,” McClain said about the area in Japan home to not only the stricken nuclear plant but a prominent surf break, “like the area around Chernobyl.”
So what’s in the water?
Following the massive earthquake and tsunami March 11, coastal communities were dragged out to sea, taking houses, cars, boats, and all the trappings of 21st Century life, some of which will make its way to the West Coast on the currents of the North Pacific Gyre, a circle that travels east from Japan to the Pacific Northwest, then down the coast to Southern California and Mexico, before veering west into the ocean again, passing Hawaii on a return trip to Japan.
Oceanographers estimate it will be two years before stuff starts washing ashore in the Pacific Northwest. Yet by then much of it will have sunk and the bigger bits will have been smashed up in storms.
“In the grand scale of things, the chance of a big piece of house landing on you is remote,” McClain said about possible perils to surfers several years from now.
But what about radiation?
On April 15, the Japanese government acknowledged dumping more than 10,000 metric tons of radioactive water from the ravaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, roughly the equivalent of four seconds of flow over Niagara Falls. The water was released in order to make room for the storage of more highly irradiated water.
The report was meant to assuage neighboring countries concerned about contamination in the ocean, a potential violation of international law. According to the report, Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), which runs the plant, released 10,393 tons of radioactive water from April 4 to 10. The amount of radiation in the discharged water was about 100 times the legal limit. Iodine-131 was the most common isotope. Cesium-134 and cesium-137 were found at lower levels.
A model created by ASR, Ltd., a coastal and marine consultant, shows radiation traveling on a path similar to floating debris in the ocean on its way to North America and Hawaii.
Yet the vastness of the Pacific and the passage of time will dilute much of the radiation, according to Carl Safina, a marine conservationist, adjunct professor at Stony Brook University and president of the Blue Ocean Institute.
In an editorial for CNN on April 7, Safina noted that radioactive iodine has a half life of about eight days. Thus, half of it will be no longer radioactive after a week. Cesium, by contrast, requires about 30 years to degrade by half. Yet it will be found in relatively low concentrations by the time it makes it way to the U.S., Safina said.
Meanwhile, a report by the International Atomic Energy Commission from Tuesday tells how TEPCO continues to monitor radiation levels at several points offshore from Japan: On April 15 levels were four times the legal limit 18 miles off the coast from Fukushima. But the energy commission report indicates radiation levels continue to drop.
McClain said there’s little the chapter of Surfrider in Japan can do but wait until the emergency at the Fukushima plant is under control. Their goal — part of a broader strategy worldwide — will be to advocate a managed retreat from the coastline.
In October McClain traveled to Japan and observed massive barriers built along the coast to protect communities. But the March tsunami mowed them down like high tide to a sandcastle, which McClain said demonstrates not only the power of the ocean, but the purpose of beaches.
“Whether it’s this, hurricane Katrina, or the Gulf oil spill, the natural human response is to say, ‘Why did this happen?'” McClain said. “We’re built out too close to the beach. The beach is a natural barrier to catastrophe.”
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