ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Two sports balls from Japan may be the first positively identified items from the Japan tsunami of March 2011 to reach Alaska shores. According to an April 19 online notice from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Office of Response and Restoration, a soccer ball and volleyball were found on the beach of Middleton Island by David Baxter, a technician at the radar site on the remote island in the Gulf of Alaska.
Baxter noticed Japanese writing stenciled on the balls. His wife translated the writing on the soccer ball and traced it to the name of a school. NOAA confirmed that the school was in the tsunami zone, though located uphill and not seriously damaged by the disaster.
"We're partly getting things secondhand," said Doug Helton, with NOAA offices in Seattle. "We're working with the State Department and the government of Japan."
NOAA thinks this could be one of the first times anything washed away during the tsunami has been sufficiently identified as to make it possible to return it to its owner. It's definitely the first such to be retrieved in Alaska, Helton said.
"There have been other items that were suspected, but this is the first one that we're aware of that has the credentials that may make it possible to positively identify it."
Middleton Island lies almost due south of Cordova in the Gulf of Alaska, 70 miles from the mainland and 50 miles from the next closest landfall, Montague Island. The low, mostly barren island is about 4.5 miles long and 1 mile across at its widest point. It was historically used for fox farming and, from World War II on, as a radar site. Currently, the Federal Aviation Administration Radar, Navigation, and Communication has facilities there.
Ringed with rocks, reefs and shipwrecks, it is famous for wet, windy weather. Conditions can be so severe that, at one point, the FAA crew on the island is said to have run out of supplies and subsisted on gull eggs.
It's no surprise that the front edge of tsunami debris should arrive here first. Helton noted that in a new model of predicted debris distribution released earlier this month, "you can see that the Gulf of Alaska is going to get high windage items, floats, Styrofoam, soccer balls. Those things could be moving pretty quickly. Wood and construction materials will be a lot slower.
NOAA has been monitoring floating debris from the tsunami for the past year, and some very buoyant items have already made it across the Pacific. A derelict fishing vessel drifted at least 4,500 miles before it was spotted off the coast of Canada and sunk by the U.S. Coast Guard in early April.