Floating debris in the waters off Japan, photographed by the U.S. Navy on March 13, 2011

Slowly but Surely, Japanese Tsunami Debris Is on its Way


Debris washed out to sea by the tsunami that hit Japan nearly a year ago has been making its way slowly across the Pacific Ocean, and according to an AP report some of it could reach remote islands north of Hawaii "any day now." The debris is not expected to reach the atolls of Hawaii until late 2012 or early 2013. Sometime after that, some amount of debris will likely wash up on the west coast of the United States.

"It's very hard to be that specific," National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Public Affairs Officer Keeley Belva said Tuesday, according to a story at MercuryNews.com. "What we're seeing right now is that debris from the tsunami is likely to wash up on the northern part of the Hawaiian Islands, near Midway and Kure Atoll, make its way to the West Coast, then circle back around to Hawaii again."

Nearly 23,000 people went missing after the disaster, many of them washed out to sea. So the debris may include some bodies -- or body parts. Seattle oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer told MercuryNews.com that athletic shoes are particularly good carriers. "Many of those bodies and parts of bodies will likely begin washing up in about a year, some simply as feet in athletic shoes, similar to those found in Puget Sound over the last decade," he said.

The NOAA has posted a Frequently Asked Questions page that dispels some of the misconceptions about the debris. For instance, some reports have said that 20-25 million tons of debris is in the ocean -- not true, says the NOAA. Although the Japanese government estimated that the tsunami and earthquake created that much debris, there is no estimate of how much actually went into the water. Also, according to the NOAA, the debris is no longer moving across the Pacific ocean in a "debris field;" rather, it has dispersed and there are now "many items scattered across a large area of the North Pacific."

The NOAA's page also rates the chances of the debris being radioactive as "highly unlikely," for a few reasons. First, the tsunami hit a long stretch of Japan's coast, while the radiation leaks at the Fukushima Daiichi plant were a localizes phenomenon. Second, the leak started after the majority of the debris had washed out to sea. Finally, ships that have arrived at U.S. port from Japan have not been found to be carrying dangerous levels of radiation.

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