Japanese tsunami debris scatters in the Pacific Ocean, possibly heading to US

December 28, 2011

Debris from the tsunami that devastated Japan in March could reach the United States as early as this winter, according to predictions by NOAA scientists. However, they warn there is still a large amount of uncertainty over exactly what is still floating, where it's located, where it will go, and when it will arrive. Responders now have a challenging, if not impossible situation on their hands: How do you deal with debris that could now impact U.S. shores, but is difficult to find?

To learn more about the , NOAA researchers have been working with the U.S. , U.S. , and other partners to coordinate data collection activities.

NOAA and its partners are also coordinating an interagency assessment and response plan to address the wide-range of potential scenarios and threats posed by the .

This NOAA video shows the March 11, 2011, Japanese tsunami, the debris created by its force and that debris being carried out to sea. It incorporates a NOAA ocean model animation using University of Hawaii data to project where and when debris might make landfall on US coastlines (in Hawaii this winter), US and Canadian Pacific coast in 2013, and then head back to Hawaii in 2014. Credit: NOAA

"We're preparing for the best and worst case scenarios — and everything in between," says Nancy Wallace, director for NOAA's Marine Debris Program.

As the tsunami surge receded, it washed much of what was in the coastal inundation zone into the ocean. Boats, pieces of smashed buildings, appliances, and plastic, metal, and rubber objects of all shapes and sizes washed into the water — either sinking near the shore or floating out to sea. The refuse formed large debris fields captured by satellite imagery and aerial photos of the coastal waters.

The Japanese government estimated that the tsunami generated 25 million tons of rubble, but there is no clear understanding of exactly how much debris was swept into the water nor what remained afloat.

Nine months later, debris fields are no longer visible. Winds and ocean currents scattered items in the massive North Pacific Ocean to the point where debris is no longer visible from satellite. Vessels regularly traveling the North Pacific have reported very few sightings. Only two pieces have been clearly linked to the tsunami.

NOAA is coordinating new interagency reporting and monitoring efforts that will provide critical information on the location of the marine debris generated by the . Ships can now report significant at-sea debris sightings and individuals or groups can request shoreline monitoring guides at DisasterDebris@noaa.gov.

Computer models run by NOAA and University of Hawaii researchers show some debris could pass near or wash ashore in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (in the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument) as early as this winter, approach the West Coast of the United States and Canada in 2013, and circle back to the main Hawaiian Islands in 2014 through 2016.

Researchers caution that models are only predictions based on location of debris when it went into the water, combined with historical ocean currents and wind speeds.

Conditions in the ocean constantly change, and items can sink, break down, and disperse across a huge area. Because it is not known what remains in the water column nor where, scientists can't determine with certainty if any debris will wash ashore.

The worst-case scenario is boats and unmanageable concentrations of other heavy objects could wash ashore in sensitive areas, damage coral reefs, or interfere with navigation in Hawaii and along the U.S. West Coast. Best case? The debris will break up, disperse and eventually degrade, sparing coastal areas.

Debris will not go away completely, even in a best-case scenario. Marine debris is an ongoing problem for Hawaii and West Coast states, where garbage and other harmful items regularly wash up on beaches, reefs and other coastal areas.

Explore further: Where will the debris from Japan's tsunami drift in the ocean?

Related Stories

Tsunami debris found 3,000 km from Japan coast

October 16, 2011

A Russian ship has found debris from the Japanese tsunami, including a fishing boat, floating adrift in the Pacific thousands of kilometres from the disaster zone, a Hawaiian research group said.

Flotsam from Japan's tsunami to hit US West Coast

April 1, 2011

(AP) -- John Anderson has discovered just about everything during the 30 years he's combed Washington state's beaches - glass fishing floats, hockey gloves, bottled messages, even hundreds of mismatched pairs of Nike sneakers ...

Russian ship finds tsunami debris where scientists predicted

October 14, 2011

Ever since the great Japan tsunami on March 11 washed millions of tons of debris into the Pacific, scientists at the International Pacific Research Center, University of Hawaii at Manoa, have been trying to track the trajectory ...

Japan's tsunami debris set for 10-year Pacific tour

June 21, 2011

Debris sucked from the shoreline of Japan by the March 11 tsunami has embarked on a 10-year circuit of the North Pacific, posing an enduring threat to shipping and wildlife, a French green group says.

New cell phone app allows beachgoers to report marine debris

May 17, 2011

With summer around the corner, millions worldwide will head to pristine beaches and waterways. However, with items such as bottles, cans and other debris washing up on U.S. shores each year, the University of Georgia and ...

Recommended for you


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

5 / 5 (1) Dec 28, 2011
Why not send out some trawlers with seine nets ? They do this to catch bulk fish, from what I understand, some of these nets span miles.

Of course, if most of it's waterlogged and sunk, which is what most people are probably hoping for, then that would be pointless.

I wonder how much is floating around in the top 100 feet or so...

I bet most ends up in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

5 / 5 (1) Dec 28, 2011
There are estimates of 20 to 25 million tons of debris, and it's on the surface. Wood from houses, dead bodies, plastic, and other crap. It has already started to wash ashore in Kodiak Alaska. It will eventually end up in the pacific garbage patch over the next 10-15 years, but nets will not be nearly enough to get rid of it. I recall (somewhere) that the size of the patch is approaching the size of Texas (?!) I hope I misread that.
5 / 5 (1) Dec 29, 2011
..No, you read right. Lot of garbage out there.

I remember my first snorkeling trip in the Keys as a kid, I had visions of tropical fish and coral reefs, dipped under the water and saw.... a toilet.

I understand there's quite a bit of garbage in the Sargasso Sea, ocean currents carry it there. Kind of makes you wonder whether life in those situations could, given enough time, evolve to resemble random garbage, detritus, flotsam, etc, from humans, just like Sargassum fish or the Sargasso Seahorse.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.