As Tsunami Debris Crosses Pacific, Dangers Emerge
Beaches on the West Coast are getting a regular dose of debris from the 2011 tsunami in Japan. The first few items were curiosities — a boat here, a soccer ball there — but as the litter accumulates, officials such as Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire have acknowledged the scale of the problem.
"We are in for a steady dribble of tsunami debris over the next few years, so any response by us must be well-planned — and it will be," she said.
Beyond the obvious problem of litter, officials are on the lookout for hidden dangers.
The tsunami swept an estimated 5 million tons of debris into the Pacific Ocean. Japanese scientists guess about 70 percent of that sank right away, which leaves maybe 1.5 million tons still floating around.
"It's everywhere," says Carey Morishige, the Pacific Islands coordinator of the marine debris program at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "It's spread out across nearly the entire Pacific Ocean."
Morishige says the debris can't really be tracked from above — it's too hard to see. So her agency uses computer models to predict its movement.
"All marine debris does not move the same," she says. "It depends on what the particular item is. If it sticks above the water quite a lot, winds tend to move the item faster."
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Image credit: Robin Loznak, Corbis