By Kevin Griffin / Vancouver Sun / April 12, 2014 / All along the Pacific coast of North America and as far south as Costa Rica, people with little or no scientific background have volunteered to raise money for the program and collect the sea water samples needed to test for radiation.
The crowdsourcing, citizen-scientist program is the idea of Ken Buesseler, a research scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the world’s biggest private-non-profit oceanographic agency. Buesseler began his career studying the spread of radioactivity from Chernobyl in the Black Sea and has been working with Japanese scientists since mid-2011 to understand the spread of radiation from Fukushima across the Pacific Ocean.
Buesseler said in a phone interview from Japan that he was motivated by public concern over radiation from Fukushima and his frustration at the reluctance of the U.S. government to fund a program to measure radiation that is expected to arrive on the West Coast this spring.
He said because the radiation levels are expected to be low, federal U.S. officials didn’t consider it a priority. As well, radiation in the oceans fell into the bureaucratic cracks: the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s responsbility extends to oceans but not radiation; the Department of Energy is responsible for monitoring radiation but not in the ocean.
“No one wanted to take responsibility,” he said.
To educate the public about Fukushima, he set up the website www.OurRadioactiveOcean.org. In November, the number of people going to his FAQ page, as he puts it, started to “go through the roof.”
It was about the same time that a YouTube video was posted claiming to have found an increase in radioactivity on a beach near San Francisco. (The radioacativity proved not to be connected to Fukushima.)
Buesseler said he believes there is a lot of public concern over radiation because people can’t touch, smell or feel it, yet they know it causes cancer. Some groups, he said, are taking advantage of that fear to trigger false alarms.
“You can be anti-nuclear and you don’t have to scare people about Fukushima,” he said. “There have been some really awful scaremongering — showing lesions in fish and things that have never been shown to be due to Fukushima. A lot of false and misleading claims, I think, are out there.”
Buesseler said neither he nor Woods Hole has involved non-scientists in a project like this before. Already two months into it, he thinks it’s a good way to engage and educate the public. It doesn’t replace basic research, he said, but it does add to it.
So far, 22 sites along the West Coast of North America and Central America along with Hawaii have been crowd funded; another 27 are in the process of raising enough money to take at least one sample.
In B.C., the cost of taking a sample, including shipping and testing, is $600. So far, two B.C. sites have been fully funded: one at the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre on the west coast of Vancouver Island and the other on Haida Gwaii. Money is needed to fund several others.