When a tsunami hit the northern coast of Japan last year, the waves ripped four dock floats the size of freight train boxcars from their pilings in the fishing port of Misawa and turned them over to the whims of wind and currents.
One floated up on a nearby island. Two have never been seen again. And one made an incredible journey across 5,000 miles (8,000 kilometers) of ocean that ended this week on a Oregon beach.
Along for the ride were hundreds of millions of individual organisms, including a tiny species of crab, a species of algae, and a little starfish all native to Japan that have scientists worried if they get a chance to spread out on the U.S. West Coast.
"This is a very clear threat," said John Chapman, a research scientist at Oregon State University's Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, where the dock float washed up early Tuesday. "It's exactly like saying you threw a bowling ball into a China shop. It's going to break something. But will it be valuable or cheap glass. It's incredibly difficult to predict what will happen next."
Plans were being considered by state authorities to scrape all the living things off the dock and bury them in the sand, so they would not spread, Chapman said.
While scientists expect much of the floating debris to follow the currents to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an accumulation of millions of tons of small bits of plastic floating in the northern Pacific, tsunami debris that can catch the wind is making its way to North America. In recent weeks a soccer ball washed up in Alaska, and a Harley Davidson motorcycle in a shipping container in British Columbia.
Just how the dock float happened to turn up in Oregon was probably determined within sight of land in Japan, said Jan Hafner, a computer programmer in the University of Hawaii's International Pacific Research Center, which is tracking the 1.5 million tons of tsunami debris estimated to still be floating across the Pacific.
That's where the winds, currents and tides are most variable, due to changes in the coastline and the features of the land, even for two objects a few yards apart, he said. Once the dock float got into the ocean, it was pushed steadily by the prevailing westerly winds, and the North Pacific Current.
"If you have leaves falling from a tree ... one leaf will be moving in a slightly different direction from another one," Hafner said. "Over time, the differences get bigger and bigger and bigger.
"Something similar is happening on the ocean."
After it ran ashore on Tuesday, the Japanese Consulate was able to track down the origin of the dock float from a plaque bolted to it commemorating its installation in June 2008. Deputy Consul Hirofumi Murabayashi said Wednesday that it was one of four owned by Aomori Prefecture that broke loose from the port of Misawa on the northern tip of the main island during the tsunami.
Akihisa Sato, an engineer with Zeniya Kaiyo Service, the dock's Tokyo-based manufacturer, said the docks were used for loading fish onto trucks. One of them turned up several weeks later on an island south of Misawa, but the other two are still missing.
A radiation check of the dock came up negative, which was to be expected if the dock broke loose before the nuclear power plant accident triggered by the waves, said Chris Havel, spokesman for the Oregon Department of Parks and Recreation, which is overseeing the dock's removal.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.