Tsunami Debris Floating Fast Toward Hawaii

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Millions of tons of debris washed out to sea by the tsunami that ravaged Japan in March is making its way across the Pacific faster than expected.

Computer models originally estimated the first of the debris wouldn't reach Midway Island until spring 2012, but a training ship, the STS Pallada, encountered tsunami debris near Midway in September.

“They saw some pieces of furniture, some appliances, anything that can float, and they picked up a fishing boat,” said Jan Hafner, computer programmer at the International Pacific Research Center (IPRC) in Hawaii, on KITV.com, a Hawaiian news outlet.

The 20-foot fishing boat had "Fukushima" written on it, making it the first confirmed report of tsunami debris, said Hafner.

Hafner assisted Nikolai Maximenko, head researcher of the IPRC, in designing the computer models. He explained to Discovery News why the debris was arriving ahead of schedule.

“Different objects are moving at different speeds. Lighter objects are positioned higher in the water and are more influenced by wind,” Hafner said. “Our model is more suitable for heavy objects.”

A chunk of Styrofoam sits so high above the water, it acts as a sail and is whisked along by the wind, whereas a piece of wooden furniture is only moved by the ocean currents.

The new estimate is that lighter objects like Styrofoam will surf onto Midway's beaches this coming winter. Japanese debris won't hit Hawaii until early 2013, a few months earlier than expected. The West Coast still probably won't see debris until approximately five years after the tsunami originally struck.

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No matter when it washes up, the tons of debris endanger marine life and maybe even humans.

In particular, fishing nets and gear, as well as other large debris, could entangle Hawaiian monk seals and wrap around coral, said Carey Morishige, Pacific Islands regional coordinator of the NOAA Marine Debris Program, in an email interview with Discovery News.

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“We do believe that radioactivity of this debris is highly unlikely. Whether that debris will contain hazmat or other chemicals that could pose a health risk — we really don't know,” said Morishige. “We don't have a good understanding or knowledge of what's out there (types and quantities), still afloat in the North Pacific from the Japan tsunami.”

In order to keep tabs on the tsunami debris, both Morishige and Hafner ask that anyone sailing in the western Pacific keep an eye out and report debris to NOAA at MDsightings@gmail.com and to the IPRC at jhafner@hawaii.edu.

Anything you find might end up in a museum someday. Hafner has heard of people calling to collect items from the debris to create a memorial museum.

Or you can be like Hafner and try to return the lost items to their owners. The boat with “Fukushima” written on it was turned in to Japanese authorities. Hafner believes the boat's registration numbers should allow them to return the boat to its owner.

IMAGES:

NOAA has run a model using OSCURS (Ocean Surface Current Simulator), similar to that of the IPRC (NOAA, Courtesy of J. Churnside).