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Japan Tsunami Marine Debris Discussed

NOAA representative clears up disaster debris misinformation. “It’s very difficult to pinpoint exact dates when and where debris will surface onshore.”

June 7, 2012
Trisha Smith , The Maui Weekly

After last year's tsunami nearly 4,000 miles away in Japan, millions of tons of debris began sifting its way through the Pacific Ocean.

But according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), we have no reason to worry that our picturesque coastlines will be littered with cargo or vessels from the tsunami that tore through Japan on March 11, 2011, let alone floating sporting equipment or radioactive materials from the Fukushima catastrophe.

Clarifications such as these and other data were revealed last Thursday evening, May 31, during the Maui Ocean Center's (MOC) complimentary "Sea Talk" presentation on "Japan Tsunami Marine Debris."

Article Photos

Modeled Movement of the Marine Debris Generated by the March 2011 Japan Tsunami

The hour-long talk--fittingly held "underwater" within MOC's "Open Ocean Exhibit" room--was presented by Carey Morishige, regional coordinator of the Pacific Islands for NOAA's Marine Debris Program (MDP), which supports national and international efforts to research, prevent, and reduce the impacts of marine debris.

Morishige, the program's sole staff member in the Pacific, works with internal and external NOAA partners to address the Japan tsunami marine debris (JTMD) resulting from Japan's "human tragedy."

According to the Japan Ministry of Environment, over 5 million tons of initial debris--mostly wood and construction materials--was washed into the ocean. Studies conclude nearly 70 percent of that debris sank near the shore of Japan shortly after the event. The remaining 30 percent (or approximately 1.5 million tons) is still "possibly floating," and has scattered itself over the vast area of the North Pacific Ocean, from the Philippines and Taiwan, to British Colombia and Alaska, and more recently, the U.S. West Coast.

NOAA utilized a computer model to simulate the movement of the JTMD since the day of the natural disaster up to May 15, 2012. The model (see front page graphic) simultaneously released 1,000 particles from eight of the coastal locations affected by this particular tsunami. According GNOME (General NOAA Operational Modeling Environment), high winds may have pushed larger items all the way to the Pacific Northwest as early as last winter. Results also reveal that most of the modeled particles are still dispersed in the north and east of the Hawaiian Archipelago. NOAA predicts "widely scattered debris" may surface intermittently along Hawai'i's shorelines over a "long period of time, over the next year, or longer."

"It's very difficult to pinpoint exact dates when and where debris will surface onshore," said Morishige.

She explained how individual characteristics--such as objects' drag and sail area--affect how debris moves with the currents and winds. Only seven official JTMD sightings are reported at NOAA thus far, including fishing boats, netting and a soccer ball--and of course, the Harley-Davidson motorcycle that washed up in April on British Colombia, over 4,500 miles away from its confirmed owner in Japan.

Morishige advised us not to expect many more occurrences as rare as this, and confirmed that this particular vehicle was stored in a sealed box, with Styrofoam lining, hence explaining its floatability.

"But there is no ocean model that exists yet that's specifically designed for all shapes and sizes," she said. "And marine debris doesn't begin nor end with the Japan tsunami."

Scientists predict some of the JTMD may reach U.S. and Canadian coasts over the next several years. When it comes to Maui, Morishige believes debris will mostly likely "wash up where debris already washes up" on the coasts, such the shores heading west from Kahului, plus areas of the North Shore and East Maui, " although, currents around the islands are difficult to model," she said.

Regarding the huge gyre north of Hawai'i, we've come to know as the "Great Pacific Garage Patch," Morishige said, "the media has continually blown it up to seem larger than it really is and what it really is."

"It's actually small, tiny pieces that are all shifting and moving at any time," she said.

She asked the audience to visit to view data regarding the "garbage patch."

In fact, the name "garbage patch" is a misnomer, according to NOAA's MDP, as there's no island of trash forming in the middle of the ocean or a blanket of trash that can be seen with satellite or aerial photographs.

The term "radiation" seized the attention of the 30 attendees. "Radiation effects are actually moderated by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration," said Morishige, suggesting for current calculations.

She did share the consensus among scientists is that radioactivity is "highly unlikely." (Visit to discover several reasons for this conclusion.)

In addition to the JTMD tracking, NOAA collects an average of 50 tons of fishing nets from waters yearly. "But, it's really difficult to source-identify debris from Japan," said Morishige.

NOAA is calling on all water professionals, including boat captains and divers, to be their eyes on the water and record serious JTMD sightings. Email specific details, including photos, date and time it was located, latitude and longitude, to




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