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Japanese tsunami debris to hit West Coast this year, sooner than expected

A new estimate suggests that debris from the Japanese tsunami will hit US coasts this year, not next year as previously thought. Who will lead the cleanup is still being worked out.

By Curt HopkinsContributor / April 17, 2012

Sens. Mark Begich of Alaska and Maria Cantwell of Washington talk to Peter Murphy with the marine debris program at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Seattle in March about the way tsunami debris is expected to cross the Pacific Ocean.

Donna Gordon Blankinship/AP/File


The earliest debris from last March's Japanese tsunami has already made landfall in the Western United States, and the larger debris field is now expected to come ashore this year, according to new estimates by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

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An earlier model had suggested that the bulk of the debris, which is now dispersed north of the Hawaiian islands, would wash up on the West Coast next year. But now government agencies and local volunteer groups are moving their preparations forward.

The event will likely be spread over most of the next year, with items easily blown by ocean winds arriving first, NOAA says. As the center of the densest patches moves in, the amount of debris should increase substantially. The denser patches of debris are unlikely to be a mass, but rather a more coherent collection over fewer square miles. 

The question of who will be responsible for cleaning beaches in Alaska, Washington, Oregon, and northern California remains. Various federal, state, and local groups appear to be planning something, though not necessarily the same thing or at the same time. Although they are working together, there is no single plan being created, nor is there one agency with whom the tsunami buck stops.

If everything goes ideally, that may not be an issue. But if a situation arises in which either confusion or reluctance reigns, the absence of a “law of the land” guiding document and a single responsible party could result in confusion. 

The likely first debris from the tsunami struck the West Coast in December of last year at Neah Bay, the northwest point of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. It was a large black Japanese float the size of an oil drum. More dramatically, a derelict Japanese fishing boat called the Ryou-Un Maru drifted into the Gulf of Alaska in March where, after it was declared unsalvageable, was used as target practice by the US Coast Guard

Japan’s Ministry of the Environment has estimated that 5 million tons of debris washed into the Pacific during the 9.0-magnitude Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, 70 percent of which quickly sunk in Japanese waters. That leaves as much as 3 billion pounds of garbage to wash up on the western coasts of North America

The debris is unlikely to be different from the debris that washes up all the time – wood, plastic, building materials, floats, and so on, much of it traveling on the currents from Japan.


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