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Tons of Japanese tsunami debris could reach California

February 28, 2012 |  6:03 pm

Houses are swept to sea following  a tsunami and earthquake in Natori City in northeastern Japan.
Tons of debris that have been drifting across the Pacific Ocean since last year's magnitude 9 earthquake and tsunami in Japan could reach Hawaii and the West Coast, including California, experts said Tuesday.

Material dragged to sea by the tsunami could reach the northern Hawaiian Islands this winter, arrive on the U.S. West Coast in 2013 or early 2014 and then be drawn back to the main Hawaiian Islands between 2014 and 2016, according to researchers with the University of Hawaii and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who discussed their most recent findings at a news conference Tuesday.

But don’t expect anything resembling a wave of garbage.

Much of the 4 million to 8 million tons of debris that washed out to sea, including entire homes, appliances and vehicles, sank off Japan’s coast, experts believe. 

Computer models by Nikolai Maximenko, a senior researcher at the University of Hawaii, predict that the 1 million to 2 million tons of flotsam still in the ocean have already spread over an expanse thousands of miles wide.

It is estimated that 1% to 5% of the debris would make it to the West Coast and would first make landfall on Hawaii's Midway Atoll.

Though satellites observed thick masses of floating debris close to Japan's shore in the days following the tsunami, they lost sight after a month as the material sank, broke down or dispersed.

In the months that followed, the Japanese government documented reports of overturned boats, shipping containers and large pieces of wood that appeared to move east over time.

But reports of debris as it spreads out across the North Pacific Ocean have been few and far between.

Just two sightings of tsunami debris, derelict Japanese vessels spotted last August and September, have been confirmed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, according to Ruth Yender, the agency’s Japan Tsunami Marine Debris Coordinator.

But both were found drifting hundreds of miles northwest of Midway Atoll.

Only items that float easily and don’t break down in the salt water and winter storms--things like buoys, plastics, barrels, fishing gear and lumber--are expected to make it thousands of miles across the ocean to reach land in the United States.

It  is “highly unlikely” that any of the debris is radioactive, Yender said.

Despite reports of buoys and other items from Japan washing up on the shores in Alaska, Washington and Oregon in recent months, none have been verified as tsunami debris, Yender said.

Debris from the tsunami that does reach the United States may end up being indistinguishable from trash that already litters the shore, Yender noted.

A good portion of the material is also expected to drift back out to sea to become part of a concentration of garbage already circulating in a vast, slow-moving vortex known as the North Pacific Gyre.


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Photo: Houses are swept to sea following  a tsunami and earthquake in Natori City in northeastern Japan. Credit: Kyodo News