Tracking Marine Debris from the Japanese Tsunami

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February 1, 2012

By NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration

The March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan were tragic events, but you can help NOAA in the aftermath of these disasters by staying on the lookout for debris washing up in Hawaii, Alaska, and along the West Coast.

Watch this video for a quick summary about the debris from the Japan tsunami headed toward the United States:

As the surge of water from the tsunami receded, it washed tons of debris out into the Pacific Ocean: everything from boats and pieces of crumbled buildings to appliances and all kinds of plastic, metal, and rubber objects.

The heaviest things sank near the Japanese shore, but lighter objects floated out to sea, forming large patches previously spotted by satellites and aerial photography. However, winds and ocean currents have broken up these patches to the point where debris is no longer visible from low-resolution satellites.

How do you deal with debris that could now impact U.S. shores but is difficult to find?

Citizen monitoring and reporting can help NOAA scientists better understand the location and nature of the debris generated by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

Ships traveling the Pacific Ocean and beachcombers on the coast can now report significant sightings. If reporting a sighting, be sure to include what you saw, when you saw it, and where it was located.  Individuals or groups can request shoreline monitoring guides by emailing [email protected].

Since debris washes up on our shores regularly, you can also help by downloading the Marine Debris Tracker app for iPhone and Android phones or emailing [email protected] to request a shoreline survey guide to start collecting information on the amount and location of trash at your beach. This allows NOAA to track changes in how much debris is showing up on U.S. coasts

When will the debris from the tsunami in Japan reach the U.S.?

Since winds and ocean currents constantly change, it’s very difficult to predict an exact date and location for the debris’ arrival on U.S. shores without more information.

NOAA has run OSCURS (Ocean Surface Current Simulator), a numeric model for ocean surface currents, to predict the movement of marine debris generated by the Japan tsunami over five years. The results are shown here. Year 1 = red; Year 2 = orange; Year 3 = yellow; Year 4 = light blue; Year 5 = violet. The OCSURS model is used to measure the movement of surface currents over time, as well as the movement of what is in or on the water. Map courtesy of J. Churnside (NOAA OAR) and created through Google.

Independent models run by NOAA and University of Hawaii researchers agree on the general direction and drift rate of debris generated by the tsunami in Japan. Right now, models tell us some debris could pass near or wash ashore:

  • In the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (a remote area spanning the distance from San Diego, Calif., to Vancouver, British Columbia) as early as the 2011-2012 winter.
  • On the West Coast of the United States and Alaska in 2013.
  • On the main Hawaiian Islands (circling back) in 2014 to 2016.

Researchers remind us that models are only predictions (like a weather forecast). Conditions in the ocean constantly change, and items can sink, break down, and disperse across a huge area. Because of this, scientists can’t say for sure if any debris will wash ashore.

Carey Morishige, Pacific Islands Regional Coordinator for the NOAA Marine Debris Program, helps explain what we know about the tsunami debris right now and what dangers the debris may pose to coral reefs and coastal areas. Click to listen to the podcast below.

Listen: Japanese Tsunami Marine Debris Podcast

Is the debris radioactive?

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Food and Drug Administration monitored for radioactivity following the event and found normal levels. Because most of the debris would have washed out to sea before the Fukushima nuclear disaster, it is considered highly unlikely the tsunami-generated marine debris would be contaminated with radioactive material.

Learn more at the NOAA Marine Debris Program website.

This blog post originally appeared on NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration blog and is republished here with permission.

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