Image 1 - Debris Field From Japan’s Tsunami To Hit US Next Year
October 26, 2011

Debris Field From Japan’s Tsunami To Hit US Next Year

An estimated 5 million to 20 million tons of debris now floating in the ocean following Japan's massive tsunami is due to hit the shores Hawaii by early next year, before reaching the U.S. West coast sometime in 2014, according to estimates by University of Hawaii scientists.

The projections have been validated by a Russian training ship, which spotted the debris in the Pacific Ocean where the scientists from the university's International Pacific Research Center predicted it would be.

A refrigerator, a television set and other appliances were among the floating items seen by the ship.

The most conclusive proof that the debris is from the March 11 tsunami is a fishing boat that's been traced to Japan´s Fukushima Prefecture — the area hardest hit by the giant wave.

In an interview with The Associated Press on Tuesday, Jan Hafner, a scientific computer programmer, said that their estimates show the debris would reach the coasts of Oregon, Washington, Alaska and Canada around 2014.

The projections indicate the debris field is currently spread throughout an area about 2,000 miles long and 1,000 miles wide between Japan and Midway Atoll, where pieces could wash up in January.

However, it is not known precisely how much debris has already sunk, and what portion is still floating in the sea.

Hafner, along with principal researcher Nikolai Maximenko, has been studying surface ocean currents since 2009.

After the Japan earthquake and tsunamis, the researchers applied their work to the wreckage sucked into the Pacific Ocean.  They used computer modeling to track the path of the debris, but lacked any direct observation of the massive field of rubble until the Russian ship STS Pallada sailing from Honolulu contacted them last month.

"From a scientific point of view, it was confirmation that our research was doing something right," Hafner told the AP.

"It was big news for us. But it was mixed feelings because you can't be excited about something as tragic as a tsunami."

The magnitude-9.0 earthquake left more than 21,000 dead or injured, while the tsunami that followed wiped out entire towns.

The waves also damaged the Fukushima nuclear power plant, triggering the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl.

However, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) marine debris program said it was highly unlikely the tsunami-generated debris would be contaminated with radioactive material.

NOAA is also collecting information about any observations of debris from the tsunami, and has been receiving calls from media worldwide following news of the Russian ship's findings.

The scientists are requesting that any boaters in the area of the debris field report any details about what they observe, so that researchers can record the GPS position, time, weather and descriptions of the items.

"We are trying to get across our message that it is coming and it's about time to start planning some action," Hafner said.


Image 1: The Pallada. Image courtesy Pallada and Natalie Borodina.

Image 2: Hoisting up to Pallada the Japanese boat registered to Fukushima prefecture and, presumably, washed into the ocean during the March 11 tsunami. Image courtesy Pallada and Natalie Borodina.

Image 3: Map of Pallada's route through model projection of debris as of September 25. Image courtesy Nikolai Maximenko and Jan Hafner


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