The March 2011 tsunami washed a staggering 1.5 million tons of Japanese debris into the ocean. And we’re not talking about plastic bottles and the occasional car tire. We’re talking about massive objects like a floating dock the size of a boxcar and a shipping crate with a motorcycle and set of golf clubs still tucked inside.

Aside from the fact that this debris is already washing up on North American coastlines, about a year before scientists expected it to arrive, this phenomenon could have drastic long-term impacts on our already struggling marine environments. Scientists worry that invasive species might find the traveling debris to be the perfect vessel for a free ride to a new home, putting endangered marine species at risk of extinction.

As Revmodo’s Brittany Lyte reported, a tiny species of crab, algae, kelp and starfish were among the hundreds of millions of organisms living on the dock that showed up in Oregon. Who knows what other giant junk piles might be headed our way, packed to the gills with stowaways?

A 2004 study in the scientific journal Ecological Economics estimated 400 threatened and endangered species in the U.S. are facing extinction because of pressures from invasive species. Of course, these invaders have been hitching rides on boats and in ship ballast water as long as men have used these vessels to navigate the sea. A rise in global trade over the last century has accelerated this process however, turning our major ports into greenhouses for invasive species growth, costing us billions in lost revenue from compromised fisheries and eradication efforts, and posing unknown risks to health and biodiversity.

For now, ocean experts will try to tackle each large piece of debris as it emerges on the shoreline. Remember that floating dock? Volunteers scraped it all off, buried it above the high water line, and sterilized the top and sides of the dock with torches, but there’s no telling what spores or larvae it may have released before they found it.

Photo Credit: An Honorable German/Flickr

via AP