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Japanese Tsunami Debris Expected to Reach West Coast This Fall

 
Scientists see wreckage as chance to track how ocean debris moves

Tsunami DebrisIt’s been just over a year since the devastating earthquake and tsunami wiped away coastal towns in Japan. As communities rebuild and mourn the loss of loved ones, a portion of the 25 million tons of wreckage is now swirling around the ocean and making its way to California shores.

It’s a unique research opportunity for scientists who have never before seen such a sudden, massive deposit of ocean debris from a one-time event.

“Over the years we’ve been tracking where debris collects. A clearer picture will eventually appear,” said Mary Jane Schramm, Outreach Specialist at the Gulf of the Farallones, a division of NOAA.

Researchers are tracking the debris as it’s carried by currents in hopes they will improve their models on the way ocean debris moves and where it ultimately settles. Every year an average of 14 million tons of garbage make it into the world’s oceans, swept along by gyres and finding its way to coastlines where marine animals consume it or become entangled -- often with deadly effect.

Several models predict that if the tsunami debris collects anywhere, in about three years’ time that place will likely be near the center of the Pacific Ocean at what’s been termed the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. University of Hawaii, Manoa researchers are concentrating their search for tsunami debris on the western coastline of the island of Midway, an atoll in the middle of the Pacific garbage patch.

“The problem is going to be knowing which pieces come from Japan and which didn’t,” said John Largier, a University of California, Davis oceanographer.

Scientists are using small electronic transmitters, called trackers, to follow the tsunami debris. They have also enlisted the help of the shipping industry to report patches. Early reports show that much of it is breaking up and sinking to the ocean floor. Some of it is also expected to reach the West Coast of the Americas this fall or winter, a full 18 months after the disaster struck Japan. An unmanned Japanese fishing trawler was recently discovered off the coast of British Columbia, a ghostly reminder of the tragedy. 

Some news stations have reported that "huge amounts of debris are bound for the California coastline." But scientists say don’t expect a deluge of trash. And despite the nuclear meltdown in Japan, radioactivity will not be on its way, since the meltdown occurred after the tsunami washed the debris to sea. As the debris moves, it’s dissipating throughout the ocean like a scatter-plot.

 

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