After a devastating tsunami hit Japan last year, where did all the things that were carried out to sea go?
Scientists Nikolai Maximenko and Jan Hafner at the International Pacific Research Center created this mesmerizing computer model to show where ocean currents and winds were likely to carry the debris.
The swirling purple cloud in the model shows where the objects swept into the ocean could end up. It shows tsunami debris just barely reaching the Midway Islands in the Pacific this month, if the model proves correct. As of January, the tsunami debris was still short of the islands because of a current pushing northeast.
Tsunami debris has already been popping up in other places that the scientists predicted. In October, a Russian ship heading from Honolulu to Vladivostok spotted a television set, a refrigerator and even a 20-foot-long Japanese fishing boat from the Fukushima prefecture, the area hit hardest by the tsunami.
The scientists have stressed that there isn't a mass of trash headed for Hawaii: Though the Japanese government estimated that the enormous earthquake and ensuing tsunami created 25 million tons of rubble, some of the debris never got into the ocean in the first place, much of it is likely to sink, and much will join the North Pacific Garbage Patch, an area where trash loosely collects in the ocean.
Though the media have widely reported that "25 million tons" of tsunami debris are drifting across the Pacific, Maximenko and Hafner said there is no scientific way to know how much is actually out there.
-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles
Photo: In the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, Kesennuma harbor was destroyed, the town burned and a large ship was deposited on the dock. Credit: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times