In March 2011, the Tohoku earthquake and subsequent tsunami on Japan’s eastern coast killed thousands of people, razed whole towns and damaged the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear facility before the tsunami plowed eastward across the Pacific.
While the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has been monitoring tsunami debris from Japan as those pieces move across the Pacific, others are investigating whether radiation from the damaged nuclear plant may pose a threat to the marine food web in the Pacific and whether it has moved to the North American west coast. Today, I’ll highlight two such projects.
First, Dr. Ken Buesseler of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution has been working with partners to track and analyze radiation levels off the coast of Japan since the weeks following the earthquake, tsunami and damage to the nuclear plant. For information, visit http://tinyurl.com/lr2e95u.
Today, a team from Woods Hole, also led by Buesseler, is preparing to monitor radiation levels along the Pacific Coast including Alaska and Canada to San Diego, California and Hawaii. Through the Center for Marine and Environmental Radioactivity at the Woods Hole, they have launched a crowdsourcing campaign and citizen science website so people can help by gathering data at these locations, which includes Santa Cruz.
Although radiation levels at these sites are below detection today, they will provide a baseline of data for when and if the Fukushima radiation arrives. Scientific models based on wind and currents project that radiation from the damaged nuclear plant will be detected first in Alaska and the Canadian coast around April 2014. It may also subsequently be found further south. For information or to get involved, visit www.ourradioactiveocean.org.
Secondly, there’s a project called Kelp Watch 2014. Steven Manley, a biology professor at Cal State University Long Beach will be launching an analysis of kelp samples along the California coast this summer. He was lead author of a study two years ago that looked at a spike in the radioisotope Iodine 131 in kelp beds at several west coast spots — the highest spike was off Corona del Mar in Newport Beach and the second highest was off Natural Bridges State Beach in Santa Cruz.
He said he believes that the substance was air-borne and traveled over the Pacific and was deposited during the rainstorm of March 21 and 22, 2011. With a half-life of eight days, radiation levels subsided quickly.
Manley is collaborating with Dr. Kai Vetter of the Lawrence Hall of Science at UC Berkeley on Kelp Watch 2014. It will involve 39 marine scientists and their staffs and will involve taking several sample blades of kelp over time from canopies at individual sites in Baja California, California, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia and Alaska. Of the 42 total sites, 32 are off California.
“Giant kelp and bull kelp are easy to harvest, easy to process and can concentrate iodine two-thousand fold,” Manley told me. Manley believes that any radionuclides that are going to appear off North America will begin to do so from April to the end of the year.
Sites off Hawaii and Guam containing indigenous seaweed will also be sampled.
About 14 to 15 pounds of kelp blades will be collected for each sample and each will be dried, and milled. The resulting mass can be fit into a one liter bottle. A team at Lawrence Berkeley Lab will analyze each bottle.
Dr. Manley said that the public can help support Kelp Watch 2014, which is also getting some funding from USC Sea Grant and California State University Council on Ocean Affairs, Science & Technology. You can stay up to date and support the project by following it on Twitter at @KelpWatch2014.
Dan Haifley is executive director of O’Neill Sea Odyssey. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.