20 million-ton Debris from Japan Heads for U.S. Coast

Around 5 to 20 million tons of debris from the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Japan are headed towards the Pacific. The island-like debris consists of furniture, fishing boats, house appliances, and anything that floats. According to researchers from the University of Hawaii who have been tracking the traveling debris, the whole wreckage could reach the U.S. West Coast within 3 years, the UK Daily Mail reports.

“We have a rough estimate of 5 to 20 million tons of debris coming from Japan,” said Jan Hafner from the University of Hawaii, in an interview with Hawaii’s ABC affiliate KITV.

There were more than 200,000 buildings that were washed out onto the sea by the said tsunami. Now, this large group of debris is being carried by a powerful current called the North Pacific Gyre. The current is carrying everything towards the coasts of Washington, Oregon and California before looping back towards Hawaii and Asia.

“Across the wide Pacific, the drift rate is about 5 to 10 miles per day. So, it’s not a terribly strong current, but it’s deliberate,” explained oceanographer Curt Ebbesmeyer. He has traced the path of ocean debris from all over the world. “It never sleeps.”

According to Ebbesmeyer, around this time next year, things that easily float will start appearing. This would include boats, wood from houses, and plastic toys. Two years from now, fishing supplies and nets will show up. On the third year, shoes, plastic furniture, and dining sets will follow. Ebbesmeyer is actually posting monthly updates of the location of the debris on his website.

“So you have to imagine a city, say the size of about Seattle. Put it through a grinder and what happens? You wind up with all kinds of debris — bodies, boats, everything from a person’s life, including the living themselves and half that’s probably going to float,” Ebbesmeyer explained.

In the previous month, crew members from the Russian training ship the STS Pallada saw the huge pile of debris about 2,000 miles from Japan, along Midway Islands northwest of Hawaii. “They saw some pieces of furniture, some appliances, anything that can float, and they picked up a fishing boat,” said Hafner. The 20-feet-long boat had the word “Fukushima” painted on it. “That’s actually our first confirmed report of tsunami debris.”

Natalia Borodina, information and education mate of the Pallada, described in detail what they had sighted. She said they spotted the island of junk on September 22, in position 31042,21 N and 174045.21 E. They picked up a Japanese fishing boat and determined its radioactivity level as normal with the Geiger counter.

“At the approaches to the mentioned position, we also sighted a TV set, fridge, and a couple of other home appliances,” Borodina reported. She also added that fragments of houses, drums and boots could also be seen.

“On October 8, the Pallada entered the port of Vladivostok, and Borodina was able to send pictures,” said the Pallada in a statement. “The most remarkable one is of a small fishing vessel about 20 feet long, which they were able to hoist up onto the Pallada. The markings on the wheel house of the boat show its home port to be in Fukushima Perfecture, the area hardest hit by the tsunami.”

The University of Hawaii’s International Pacific Research Center (IPRC) used computer models to predict exactly where the debris could end up. It was found at the exact spot, albeit a little earlier than expected. The targeted time for its first landfall in the Windward Islands is December. Some of the debris will head towards the main Hawaiian Islands and the North American West Coast. It is believed to be 20 million tons as a whole.

Researchers said the largest object they might spot would be capsized vessels or ships. These ships could block the channels that go into ports.