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Japan Debris

November 10, 2011
Japan debris could hit West Coast by 2014

October 27th, 2011, 1:11 pm by Pat Brennan, O.C. Register science, environment editor

Debris from Japan’s catastrophic earthquake and tsunami could reach Hawaii 2013, and the U.S. West Coast by 2014, according to researchers in Hawaii who are tracking the debris field.

A Russian vessel called the Pallada spotted some of the junk in the Pacific last month, even recovering a Japanese fishing boat flushed out to sea in the disaster, and notified the researchers at the University of Hawaii’s International Pacific Research Center.

“The tsunami wave took everything,” said Jan Hafner, scientific computer programmer at the center who, with lead researcher Nikolai Maximenko, has been tracking the debris and estimating its future course as currents carry it across the ocean.

“The Pallada saw a TV set, a fridge, home appliances — not regular garbage,” Hafner said. “It’s not what you would normally see from pollution.”

Just how much debris is still afloat — and how much will eventually reach the U.S. West Coast — is difficult to guess, he said.

The tsunami that struck Japan Mar. 11 after a 9.0 earthquake washed away an estimated five to 20 million tons of debris. The debris field on the ocean is estimated to be about 1,000 by 2,000 nautical miles in extent, Hafner said.

“We still do not know how much is on the bottom already, and how much is still floating,” he said.

Because the Japanese disaster also led to radioactive releases from nuclear reactors, the crew of the Russian ship measured the debris they saw with a Geiger counter, but detected no elevated radiation levels, Hafner said.

And he had one piece of good news for California. While the debris could well hit the coasts of Alaska, Canada, Oregon and Washington, it will likely miss the California coast because of south-flowing currents.

“We cannot say it’s a 100 percent guarantee,” Hafner said. “There might be some anomalies. But in general, California will not receive any debris from the open ocean.”

He also asked that boaters in the area keep a lookout for the debris, not only for their own safety but to report it to the research center.

“Note the location, GPS, date and time, what is the state of the ocean, the weather, and a detailed description of the debris, and get back to us,” he said.

Information should be sent to Hafner at


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