Tsunami app helps track where debris washes up

Lurking off the west coast of North America is a massive field of waterlogged possessions, swept out to sea after last year’s devastating Japanese tsunami. All that debris hitting the coastline can now be documented by a new app, developed at the University of Victoria’s Ocean Networks Canada.

Scientists and oceanographers are unsure where the bulk of the debris field will land, although it is expected to hit beaches from southern Oregon to Alaska. Developers of the Coastbuster app hope the technology will turn coastal residents into citizen scientists.

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The smartphone app can be used to upload photos of unusual debris. Photos will then be vetted by Oceans Network Canada (ONC) and relevant pictures sent to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the U.S agency heading tracking efforts for B.C. and the U.S.

“One of the big issues is how do you document stuff in order to make decisions about what to do about it,” said Kate Moran, Ocean Networks CEO, as she watched a demonstration on a Saanich beach Thursday.

“So many people in B.C. spend time outdoors and love the beaches and, with this, they can collect data even when there is no cell network because (phones) have GPS and the photos can be uploaded later.”

Cara Lachmuth of Surfrider Vancouver Island, a group that conducts beach cleanups, is enthusiastic about the app.

“I think this is incredible. It’s such a great way to get people involved,” she said.

“No one else is documenting it like this and people love apps.

However, Lachmuth would like people to clean up smaller items, not just take photographs.

The app can also be adjusted to study other topics, such as ocean currents, natural disasters or the health of shellfish beds, Moran said.

Benoit Pirenne, ONC digital infrastructure associate director, said NOAA is mainly interested in significant debris and especially anything potentially dangerous or that could harbour invasive species. But information about other items can be used to fill in the pattern of landings and help volunteers clean up remote beaches.

NOAA’s latest map shows the main mass between Hawaii and Midway Atoll. It also confirmed tsunami items have been found from southern Oregon to Alaska and, as the field is about 650 kilometres offshore, is expected this winter to sweep many more items ashore.

Most of the 1.5 million tonnes of debris that did not sink after the tsunami is now floating beneath the surface, where it can’t be tracked by satellite.

“I don’t think we should be alarmed, but it will be wonderful for citizen scientists to help document these things,” said Moran, who is hoping hikers, kayakers, aboriginal communities and residents of coastal communities will download Coastbuster.

The app is simple to use and asks for basic descriptions of items, although there is room for additional information if someone wants to get more involved, Pirenne said.

Photos will also be uploaded to Flickr so people can browse items found in a certain area or track something that is being washed from beach to beach.

The app is currently available for Android phones and tablets. An iPhone version is under development.

To download it, search your phone’s app service for “coastbuster.”

jlavoie@timescolonist.com

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