For almost three years, a question has nagged at people living near the coastline in Alaska, British Columbia, Hawaii and along the U.S. West Coast. Is a plume of radioactive ocean water really inching its way toward us from Japan? By all accounts, yes it is.
In March 2011, you’ll recall, Japan experienced a terrible magnitude 9.0 earthquake that triggered a devastating tsunami. The overwhelming power of the water driven by that tsunami in turn caused a catastrophic failure at the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant. The plant released substantial amounts of radioactive material, making it the worst nuclear incident since the 1986 calamity at Chernobyl.
Much of that radioactive release went straight into the Pacific Ocean. Since that time, more leaks have continued to spew radioactive materials into the water. Ocean currents are carrying that toxic plume relentlessly across 5,000 miles toward the western U.S. and Canadian coast.
Scientists project that Alaska and British Columbia will feel the first effects of such a plume in 2014. Most experts feel impacts will be minimal. Amazingly, however, “[n]o U.S. government or international agency is monitoring the spread of low levels of radiation from Fukushima along the West Coast of North America and around the Hawaiian Islands.” Surprising but true, says the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI) in Massachusetts.
Watch a WHOI video explaining what happened at Fukushima and its impact on ocean and marine life here:
If the Government Won‘t Track it, Woods Hole Says it Will
If no one’s tracking that radiation, how will we know what impacts to expect? The government may not be keeping an eye on this problem, but WHOI is — and WHOI wants you to help them, if you can.
WHOI is the world’s largest private, non-profit oceanographic research institution. In June 2011, Ken Buesseler, a WHOI senior scientist and marine chemist, began investigating the radiation’s effect on the seawater surrounding the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant. He says WHOI already has “dozens of samples from the coast of Japan out to the middle of the Pacific,” but that’s as far as the analysis has gone to date.
To know more, WHOI needs many more water samples from along the North American West Coast and across the Pacific Ocean. Those samples will cost money that WHOI doesn’t have. Additionally, WHOI already has samples contributed by scientists and citizens that it can’t afford to analyze.
To remedy this problem, in mid-January 2014, WHOI launched a program to crowdfund the continuation of its radiation analysis and to secure the help of the public in obtaining more samples. Hand in hand with that effort, WHOI established a citizen science website called Our Radioactive Ocean. According to the site:
The Institution and the Center for Marine and Environmental Radiation (CMER) are uniquely equipped to provide consistent, accurate assessment of both natural and manmade radiation in marine samples and is hosting this site to make this information readily available to everyone in a timely manner.
“Whether you agree with predictions that levels of radiation along the Pacific Coast of North America will be too low to be of human health concern or to impact fisheries and marine life, we can all agree that radiation should be monitored, and we are asking for your help to make that happen,” Buesseler said in a WHOI press release.
How the Program Works
For those who want to help, the first task is proposing a suitable location for testing. If WHOI agrees with your suggested sampling location, it asks that the proposer donate at least $100 in seed funding to get the ball rolling.
Next comes raising the money to pay for sampling, testing and shipping. That’s about $500 to $600 depending on the location. WHOI can help with this part of the effort by setting up a fundraising webpage for you.
Then you go to town, spreading the word every way you know — via social media, e-mail and even by talking it up at the good old watercooler at work — to get people interested enough to pry open their wallets to help out. Hey, hold a bake sale or get pledges and run a 5K. Whatever gets you to your funding goal works.
When your funding is in hand, WHOI will send you a sampling kit with directions and everything needed to take water samples. WHOI needs about 5 gallons of seawater from each location. Once collected, you’ll ship it to CMER for analysis.
Watch a video describing how to properly take a sample with one of the kits:
“I’m particularly excited about finding support for sampling key locations along the West Coast multiple times throughout the coming two years, because radioactivity levels are expected to be increasing,” Buesseler said.
What say you, West Coasters? The more who participate, the more we’ll know about the condition of West Coast seawater and marine life. Are you up to the challenge?
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