Japan Tsunami Debris to Reach Hawaii, North America

By Maria Nikias

Feb 28, 2012 6:20pm

The devastating tsunami generated by a magnitude-9 earthquake in Japan last year created 25 million tons of debris, ripping towns and villages into the Pacific Ocean.

Today, researchers at the University of Hawaii along with Ocean Conservancy revealed that part of the 4 to 8 million tons of debris that washed into the ocean could turn up on the northern Hawaiian islands as early as today.

“We estimate that currently, even though winter storms and ocean break down part of debris, between 1 to 2 tons of debris are floating,” said Dr. Nikolai Maximenko, senior researcher at the University of Hawaii. “A majority of debris is going to stay in the water a long time and only a small percent will hit the coast line.”

Mid-size fishery ships, small boats, lumber from broken houses and fish nets are among the many objects that could wash up on the shores.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration projected this small percentage of debris could hit the northern Hawaiian islands as early as January and February of this year, while the west coast and Alaska could see debris by 2013. Between 2014 and 2016, ocean currents will circle the remaining debris back west to the main Hawaiian Islands.

“Marine debris moves due to ocean currents and winds, and they projected the current path based on this,” explained Ruth Yender, Japan Tsunami Marine Debris Coordinator for NOAA.  Maximenko also outlined computer models that identified atmosphere winds and past movements of debris helped project the general path.

While initial photos from the tsunami showed massive clusters of debris lingering in the ocean, researchers say most is now dispersed and no longer tracked by satellite imagery.

“Much of the debris sank near shore off of the Japan coast, and the debris is now dispersed and no longer in large concentrations,” said Yender. “Most of the debris we don’t expect to be easily identifiable or distinguishable from routine debris, so that will be a challenge.”

Even with countless reports of tsunami debris findings in the past year, the only two confirmed were both distinguishable Japanese vessels. Yender says researchers will have to use the volume or unique characteristics in order to distinguish tsunami debris, and even more so, radioactivity is not of concern.

“It’s very highly unlikely there will be any radioactive contamination of the debris. The debris was washed out by the tsunami several days before the leak occurred, and monitoring of the discovered Japan vessels indicated that they were normal and was no high level of radioactivity.”

While those who live along the coast might be keeping their eyes peeled to get their hands on tsunami debris, Yender says soon no one will know the difference.

“Probably two to three years from now we won’t be able to distinguish between tsunami debris and normal debris.”

The tsunami caused the deaths of 13,000 people and uprooted 500,000 people from their homes.

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