Wind helps predict tsunami debris drift

NOAA uses wind effects to track drift of Japanese tsunami debris

November 7, 2013

The devastating tsunami that struck Japan in March 2011 caused a huge amount of local destruction, including damaged homes and radioactive water leaks, which has persisted to this day. But it also has affected areas far from that initial site—most prominently, by creating over a million tons of debris that are still floating across the Pacific Ocean toward North America.

After the magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck the east coast of Japan, and triggered a tsunami that killed more than 15,000 people, an estimated 5 million tons of debris was swept into the Pacific.

Nearly three years after the earthquake and tsunami struck japan, whatever debris remains floating is very spread out. It is spread out so much that you could fly a plane over the Pacific Ocean and not see any debris since it is spread over a huge area, and most of the debris is small, hard-to-see objects.

Boats, flooring and soccer balls, among other things, have already made their way to the west coast of the United States. Some things, like a dock that washed ashore in Oregon, has brought particularly unwelcome stowaways with it. So far, scientists have found 165 non-native species on the dock, including the Northeastern sea star and a type of brown algae used to make miso soup, according to John Chapman of Oregon State University’s marine Science Center.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which has been tracking the debris since 2011, recently updated its trace models to include the effect of wind on the waste.

“This new modeling effort gives us a better understanding of where the debris may have traveled to date, but it does not predict where it will go in the future or how fast it will drift,” NOAA officials wrote in an update. “The new model takes into account that wind may move items at different speeds based on how high or low materials sit in the water.”

In addition to the debris, a wave of slightly radioactive water flushed from the Fukushima nuclear reactor should come ashore in North America sometime in 2014, but luckily it will be so diluted that it should be harmless by the time it gets here. In fact, scientists haven’t found any detectable radiation in any of the debris.

NOAA acknowledged that while there is still some debris in the sea, it is uncertain of where the debris is located and how much is left since the North Pacific is vast.

“A significant amount of debris has already arrived on U.S. and Canadian shores,” it said, “and it will likely continue arriving in the same scattered way over the next several years.

As we get further into the fall and winter storm season, NOAA and partners are expecting to see more debris coming ashore in North America, including tsunami debris mixed in with the “normal” marine debris that we see every year.”

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