Japan Tsunami: Debris From Disaster Heading to U.S. West Coast

Floating debris from the Japan tsunami poses a threat to shipping traffic.

April 07, 2011, 3:54 AM

April 7, 2011— -- While the world's attention is focused on Japan's Fukushima nuclear reactors, there is increasing concern over a massive debris field that is floating toward the U.S. West Coast.

After the tsunami and 9.0 earthquake that hit Japan in March, enormous chunks of entire towns were washed away and are now being found floating in open waters.

Members of the US Navy's 7th fleet, near the coast of Japan, say they've never seen anything like it

Houses, cars, even tractor trailers bobbing in the ocean have become a threat to shipping traffic.

"It's very challenging to move through these to consider these boats run on propellers and that these fishing nets or other debris can be dangerous to the vessels that are actually trying to do the work," Ensign Vernon Dennis said. "So getting through some of these obstacles doesn't make much sense if you are going to actually cause more debris by having your own vessel become stuck in one of these waterways."

Dennis said the largest thing they might find that would hinder traffic would be capsized vessels or ships.

"There was really no way to weather such a way, such an event... so there's ships out there - that are capsized or upside down or resting on their sides... in many cases are blocking the channels that go into these ports," he said.

Floating Rubble May Take Years to Reach West Coast

More than 200,000 buildings were washed out to sea by the tsunami and now a powerful current called the North Pacific Gyre is carrying everything towards the coasts of Washington, Oregon and California before looping back towards Hawaii and Asia.

"Across the wide Pacific the drift rate is about 5 to 10 miles per day, so it's not a terribly strong current, but it's deliberate," said oceanographer Curt Ebbesmeyer, who has tracked the path of ocean debris from around the world. "It never sleeps."

He says a year from now, things that easily float like boats, wood from houses and plastic children's toys will appear.

Ebbesmeyer posting monthly updates as to where the debris actually is on his website.

Two years out, fishing supplies and nets will come ashore and after three years, shoes, plastic furniture and even entire dining sets.

"So you have to imagine a city say the size of about Seattle, put it through a grinder and what happens? You wind up with all kinds of debris - bodies, boats everything from a person's life including the living themselves and half that's probably going to float," said Ebbesmeyer.

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