Japan Tsunami Debris

Elizabeth Field

According to researchers, debris from Japan’s devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami could reach Hawaii by early 2011 and the western coast of the continental United States by 2014.

Scientists at the International Research Center at the University of Hawaii Manoa have been attempting to track the path of this debris, which possibly threatens small ships and pacific coastlines. University of Hawaii oceanographers were in contact with a Russian vessel, the Pallada, which spotted wreckage in the Pacific. “The Pallada saw a TV set, a fridge, home appliances—not just regular garbage. It’s not what you would normally see from pollution” said Jan Hafner, a researcher at the university.

The tsunami that hit Japan after a 9.0 earthquake in March washed into the ocean an estimated five to 20 million ton of debris. More than 200,000 buildings were washed out to sea and there have been sightings of vehicles, capsized ships, entire houses, and severed body parts floating in the Pacific Ocean.

The vast amount of debris poses a great threat to ships. Ensign Vernon Dennis of the U.S. Navy’s seventh fleet said, “It’s very challenging to move through these to consider these boats run on propellers and that these fishing nets or other debris can be dangerous to the vessels that are actually trying to do the work. So getting through some of these obstacles doesn’t make much sense if you are going to actually cause more debris by having your own vessel become stuck in one of these waterways.”

Weather plays a large part in the direction and current location of the debris, as powerful storms and currents can change the course of the debris. Only a small amount of the debris will wash ashore, most will sink into the depths of the ocean, posing little risk for the stability of on-land ecosystems.

Pieces of debris found in these large currents have been collected and tested for the possibility of radiation. The levels of radiation in these items have either been very low or non-existent, and it is also noted that the ocean could dilute any traces of it.