March 15, 2013 Leave a comment
Over two years have now passed since the Tohoku earthquake rent the seafloor 40 miles off the coast of Japan. The 9.03 magnitude quake – the largest in Japan’s history – triggered a staggeringly destructive tsunami which cost the lives of over 15,000 people.
Aside from the human tragedy of the disaster, the tsunami has had another, quite unexpected, effect: the transport of invasive species across the globe. Plants and animals from the north-west Pacific are now washing up over 8000 miles away on North American beaches, sparking fears that a wave of ecological invasions could be threatening coastal environments the length of the continent.
How have these organisms managed to travel so far? Such was the force of the tsunami as it tore into docks, boats and buildings on the Japanese coast that an estimated 1.5 million tons of debris was washed out to sea. This was not just the usual plastic waste that pollutes the Pacific Ocean; individual blocks of steel and concrete weighing over 100 tons have been sighted drifting off the coast of Hawaii and North America. Flotsam this large provides a substrate for sedentary coastal life and can shield species from the worst of oceanic conditions. Individual species regularly make similar transits attached to the hulls of boats.
However, what has surprised ecologists in this instance is the number of species that are washing up after 15 months adrift. Whilst whole communities are not turning up on American shores – larger and more mobile animals in particular have long since been washed away – species are certainly arriving en masse in North America. For example, a pier from Misawa port in Japan was harbouring over 100 species when it beached in Oregon in June 2012.