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Debris from 2011 Japanese Tsunami Floating Toward U.S.: How Worried Should We Be?

Nov 20, 2013

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Typhoon Haiyan has had a devastating impact on the Philippines and the world, with thousands dead and an untold amount of property damage. Images of the destruction summon memories of another enormous storm that rocked the world two years ago: the tsunami that struck Japan.

What most people remember from that disaster is the meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear plant. U.S. officials allayed fears that radiation from the plant posed a threat to the West Coast. Still, there were concerns about the debris pushed into the ocean by the tsunami and whether that enormous amount of flotsam could reach U.S. shores.

In the first week of November, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) released an updated computer model showing that some debris had reached the West Coast. Headlines dubbed it a "flotilla" and "islands" of debris floating toward the U.S., conjuring images of Godzilla attacking California in the form of a giant mass from Japan.

NOAA officials quickly tried to get out in front of the story, saying that it was not nearly as severe as some made it out to be. 

An example of some of the debris that washed up on U.S. shores soon after the Japanese tsunami in 2011. Credit: U.S. Navy An example of some of the debris that washed up on U.S. shores soon after the Japanese tsunami in 2011. Credit: U.S. Navy

The agency released information that was far from panic-inducing:

  • The Japanese government estimated that 5 million tons of debris washed away during the tsunami.
  • Seventy percent of that debris is believed to have sunk near the coast of Japan.
  • High windage items might have reached the Pacific Northwest coast as early as the winter of 2011-12.
  • As of Nov. 7, the NOAA has received approximately 1,935 reports about debris, of which 35 were confirmed as tsunami debris.

  • Computer modeling indicates a majority of  the debris will be dispersed north and east of the Hawaiian archipelago.

The NOAA and various government agencies are attempting to collect data and assess the debris, agency spokesperson Keeley Belva told Green & Clean Journal.

"NOAA alone does not have the resources to launch a large-scale removal effort; therefore, NOAA, in coordination with other Federal agencies, is preparing contingency plans in partnership with each potentially affected state, in the event that large, hazardous or unmanageable amount of debris wash ashore," she said.

"Debris varies in both in type and where it originates," Belva added. "To have a full scale tracking and forecasting system in place would be extremely costly and not very accurate nor efficient."

A portion of the debris is expected to continue to reach U.S. and Canadian shores "over the next several years," she said.

John Chapman, an adjunct professor in the Department of Fisheries & Wildlife at Oregon State University, said that NOAA's most-recent model shows a "smoothed-off" pattern of the debris, but that things continue to show up that weren't showing up just a few months ago.

"It's certainly not a mass amount of debris that's floating here, so people don't need to panic about that," he said. "But we know there are at least two docks out there, and we see a succession of different things like floats and buoys. There was a 188-foot dock off the coast of Hawaii that was spotted; we know it exists, but it seems to have disappeared now. I'm confident it's floating somewhere in the U.S."

Chapman said he's also keeping an eye on some eddies floating off the coast of Japan that appear headed to the U.S. Debris has washed ashore in California, Oregon and Hawaii and Alaska.

What distresses Chapman is that much of the debris is being hauled away before scientists have had a chance to study it.

"We want to measure it, we want to look at it, but it's being taken away by states and governments, because they need to get it off their beach and they don't have the time and resources to adequately study it," he said. "If we could study this stuff, and if NOAA had the funding, and the public and political backing to do it, it could really be of value to research. But we don't have enough resources or enough will to do that."

One question that arises is whether any of the debris is radioactive, given the Fukushima disaster.

Doug Dasher, a research professional at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks Institute of Marine Science, said radioactivity isn't much of a concern because the debris from the tsunami would have already been in the ocean before Fukushima's problems began.

"Any radioactive material that had accumulated on debris would've washed off before it made it anywhere near us," he added.

Dasher does, however, think that the proliferation of invasive animal species could become an issue in the U.S.

"There's a European mussel that has showed up, and quite a few crab species that may have been attached to the docks that floated here," he said. "Some of it could wind up in San Francisco Bay, for example, and it could start eating everything else. It could really play havoc with other animals."

Like Chapman, Dasher suggested that scientists would love to study some of the animals that have floated toward the U.S. to see if they contained baseline levels of radioactivity, but agreed there aren't enough federal resources to do it.

"There's really no way to tell what else might be coming," Dasher said. "You could see more metal, more hardware, more plastic, and more animals carrying parasites that we just won't know about until they are here and can be studied."