Japanese Tsunami Debris Headed Our Way

There are various sites tracking the massive amounts of debris dragged off land by the tsunami that struck Japan on March 11, 2011, and headed eastward across the Pacific. It’s not really a debris field because the material–houses and their contents, fishing boats, even small freighters–is so dispersed, and it’s not actually being tracked because it is no longer detectable by satellite. Rather, its possible trajectory  has been modeled by computer and vessel sighting reports. It’s also impossible to know how much of the estimated 25 million tons is still on its way; some of it undoubtedly has sunk and some has degraded. A good place to start learning about the threat to the west coast of North America and Hawai’i, including the national marine monument in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands,  is the Ocean Conservancy Tsunami Debris site. This “what you need to know” page explains the potential danger of the debris to wildlife and reefs and features a close-up photo of some debris,  including a boat keel.

For an overview of the debris’s projected movement based on the computer models of Jan Hafner and Nikolai Maximenko, researchers at the International Pacific Research Center (IPRC), University of Hawai’i, visit the Tsunami Debris Tracking Project. For an animated simulation of its anticipated spread for the next few years click here (warning–takes time to load).  The IPRC also issued a press release about a Russian sailing ship that in October found tsunami debris where the scientists had predicted, confirming the accuracy of the projections.

The Ocean Conservancy site also puts the tsunami hazard into perspective, calling this “high-profile case of ocean debris . . . just a small part of the overall ocean trash problem. A tsunami’s worth of ocean trash is created every year simply by the things we buy, use and throw away.” Unlike the natural disaster that struck Japan, we can do something about this annual tsunami of trash; try what the Ocean Conservancy recommends, such as tracking your throwaway habits via Keep the Coast Clear, and watch for more posts on what you can do to slow the scourge of plastic pollution.



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