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Are Millions of Pounds of Japan's Tsunami Debris About to Hit US Shores?

Pacific coastal communities prepare for possible impacts of marine debris from Japan's triple disaster.
 
 
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In the age of constant crisis coverage, it is easy to forget that disasters don't just end once the cameras move on. On the contrary, they morph into new situations, sometimes improved, but often more complex and severe. In the case of Japan's earthquake-tsunami-nuclear catastrophe, part of that tripartite disaster floated out to sea as debris where it has been drifting for months to destinations unknown.

According to Japan's Ministry of Environment's Waste Management Division,  the 9.0 magnitude temblor and tsunami generated some 25 million tons of debris in total, literally sucking the lives of thousands of people and their belongings out to sea. Since last March, the remains of destroyed buildings, vehicles, broken furniture, fishing boats, nets and miscellaneous flotsam has been adrift in the north Pacific vastness. But how much was pulled into the ocean and where it will end up, no one can really say for sure.

Scientists and experts in Canada and the United States and, in particular, the Hawaiian islands, recognizing the potential for a fourth leg to Japan's triple disaster, are trying to forecast a possible debris path as they prepare for what could be headed their way.

One scientist closely monitoring the situation is Dr. Nikolai Maximenko, a senior researcher at the University of  Hawaii's International Pacific Research Center in Honolulu. Speaking at a conference on the Hawaiian island of Kauai in December, Maximenko said that one-third to one-quarter of the total debris may have been pulled out to sea by the tsunami. But what first appeared as dense, yellow floating masses of broken lumber was quickly overshadowed by a more immediate human and environmental disaster unfolding on land.

Maximenko and other scientists in Hawaii are using diagnostic computer models in an attempt to accurately predict the likely path of debris. In June 2011, sailors traveling between Yokohama and Alaska sighted suspected tsunami-generated detritus. They described navigating two days across a field of "unusual debris," including they said looked like "file cabinets, lumber, freezer chests and large pieces of Styrofoam."

In another significant sighting last September, the Russian sailing ship STS Pallada reported passing through debris some 400 miles west of Midway atoll while on its way from Hawaii to the Vladivostok. The Russian crew spotted an unoccupied Japanese fishing boat (later confirmed to be registered in Fukushima Prefecture) as well as televisions, bottles, boots, wash basins and doors.

Coming to a Beach Near You

Citing a SCUD (Surface Currents from Diagnostic) model, Maximenko explains how the best available forecasts suggest debris is likely to first reach the mostly uninhabited, remote, northwestern Hawaiian islands before moving east toward the west coast of Canada and the United States and then circling back in the direction of the main Hawaiian islands. Models forecast debris could enter Hawaiian waters as early as this winter, continuing through at least 2015.

Late last year, a UK tabloid ran the headline, "Japanese tsunami debris washes up on US West Coast nine months after disaster (and there's 100 MILLION more tons on its way)." Eye-catching to be sure, but experts caution that it's impossible to know how much material remains afloat, what path it will take and where or when it will appear.

Maximenko's own assessment of the potential crisis is blunt: "We are not prepared for this event, but we have a unique opportunity to understand and to protect." He says that now is the time to form partnerships among organizations and individuals to plan for possible impacts and monitor Pacific waters and coastlines.

The Hawaiian islands, reliant on tourism as a major part of its economy, have seen an overall decline in the number of Japanese tourists dating back to at least 9/11, but still enjoy the economic benefit of Japanese (and now, increasingly, Korean and Chinese) tourist arrivals. The notion that some of Hawaii's beautiful, sandy beaches could be hit with an influx of tsunami debris is enough to make tourist industry officials turn ashen. To suggest that the debris could possibly be contaminated from the Fukushima nuclear plants is the stuff of a real-life sci-fi horror story.

 
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