Japan tsunami debris heading for the US

By AAP with AG staff 29 February 2012
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Masses of debris, including floating refrigerators, is making its way on ocean currents, towards the Hawaii and the US.

TSUNAMIS GENERATED BY THE magnitude-9.0 earthquake in Japan last March dragged up to 3.6 million tonnes of debris into the ocean after tearing up Japanese harbours and homes.

Scientists believe ocean currents are still carrying some of the lumber, refrigerators, fishing boats and other floating objects across the Pacific toward the United States.

One to five per cent of  up to 1.8 million tonnes of debris still in the ocean may reach Hawaii, Alaska, Oregon and Washington and British Columbia, said University of Hawaii senior researcher and ocean current expert Dr Nikolai Maximenko.

That’s only a portion of the 18 – 23 million tonnes of debris the tsunami – recently found to be a rare ‘double wave’ generated altogether, including what was left on land.

Tsunami debris a concern

Nikolai plans to discuss on Tuesday at a news conference his latest estimates for where the debris is and when it may wash ashore. Last year, his team estimated debris could arrive in Hawaii in early 2013.

Some debris appears to have already arrived in the US, such as half-dozen large buoys suspected to be from Japanese oyster farms found in Alaska late last year.

Nicholas Mallos, conservation biologist and marine debris specialist for the Ocean Conservancy, said many of the objects are expected to be from Japan’s fishing industry. The conservancy is hosting the news conference.

Fishing gear could harm wildlife, such as endangered Hawaiian monk seals, if it washes up on coral reefs or beaches.

“The major question is how much of that material has sunk since last year, and how much of that remains afloat or still in the water column,” Nicholas said.

Tsunami debris spread thousands of miles

It’s unclear whether items like refrigerators will make it across because there’s little precedent for such things in the ocean.

Computer models created by the University of Hawaii indicate the debris is spread far apart across thousands of miles from the eastern coast of Japan to an area some 1600km north of the Hawaiian Islands.

“The debris field is largely dispersed over a large area. And because of that dispersion, we can no longer rely on satellite imagery to track the debris,” Nicholas said.