Floating Debris From Japan’s Tsunami Headed for U.S.

By Breanna Draxler | November 4, 2013 3:24 pm
Debris fields from the earthquake and subsequent tsunami that struck northern Japan could be seen in the days after the disaster struck but are no longer visible. Image credit: U.S. Navy

Debris fields like this one could be seen in the days after the disaster but are no longer visible. Image credit: U.S. Navy

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.

Scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have been modeling the slow creep of this stuff across the ocean since 2011. Their initial computer model relied mainly on data about oceanic currents, but the latest iteration also takes into account wind speed and how wind interacts with materials differently, depending on how they float on the water.

An updated NOAA report released last week shows a floating debris island field* the size of Texas that’s headed toward the U.S., along with other debris dispersed throughout the ocean.

Carrying Critters

Boats and flooring and soccer balls have already made their way to the west coast of the United States. Some stuff, like a dock that washed ashore in Oregon, has brought surprising 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. John Chapman of Oregon State University’s Marine Science Center told FoxNews.com,

“We thought, ‘the Pacific can’t be crossed by living organisms from Japan’ … and we were wrong, very wrong.”

The updated NOAA model shows the predicted dispersion of debris in the Pacific Ocean. Image credit: NOAA

An updated model shows the dispersion of debris in the Pacific Ocean. Image credit: NOAA

Debris Distribution

The report shows past and present distribution of the floating detritus amid concerns that the stuff could wash up on shores in Hawaii, Alaska, the U.S. West Coast, and Canada over the next few years. NOAA’s recent release explains,

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.

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.

*Updated 11/5/13: The debris is more dispersed than a flotilla, but still concentrated in one primary area.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, top posts
  • http://synerdata.net/ Gordon Stark

    Meanwhile, the starfish off Vancouver Island are melting.

    • exboyracer

      They did that in the 80s too. So maybe some other problem

    • Chris Olds

      Starfish melt because of increase in water temp. Even a slight increase will cause the weaker ones to “melt” away. This is a natural progression and nothing to be alarmed about.

      • amuncat

        Really? The scientist in this area thought it significant! As a matter of fact, they hadn’t seen this happen here before. It made the front page of the Seattle Times…but I guess you know better!

        • MikeofAges

          Scientists have to butter their bread too. They’re not immune to getting wound up in the political climate.

        • wendorms

          Would you like some cheese with that whine?

      • disqus_vCf5Zv1ZJV

        Chris, I hate to ask, but “says who”? Is this your informed opinion? What sources form the basis of the statement?

    • amuncat

      …and Puget Sound!

  • Cricket73

    Soccer balls…..WILSON!!!!

  • Robert Buckholz

    harvest it before it hits shore

  • Static

    The size of Texas, huh? Sounds a bit alarming by any means. Mother nature can be quite devestating!

  • Mike215

    If people are unhappy living on the West Coast, come to Florida and enjoy warm winters and no pollution.

    • tim


    • Otis Guelpe

      And bugs and snakes and heat and humidity and intense thunderstorms and hurricanes and alligators and crime. Blechh!

    • Torch39

      Careful! They’re bring their politics with them.

    • KartofflMuter


    • Christpatriot

      Mike125 ‘If people are unhappy living on the West Coast, come to Florida and enjoy warm winters and no pollution’.

      No Pollution? Have you seen the theaters, and television, and the music awards lately? The pollution is just about nationwide. The retribution will be also. Our harvest is due.

      The only way out of what is coming, is national repentance.

      • wendorms

        Repentance and $2 will get you a cup of coffee…. you cannot petition the Lord with prayer.

  • Ed C

    If any of you want to come to Texas, leave your liberal attitude or don’t come at all.

    • noiseyone

      Geez – after a comment like that – no thanks. Must everything be politicized? Or would that be “culturized”? Florida sounds friendlier. Thanks Mike215. Stay classy Ed.

  • InklingBooks

    This is nothing new here nor is it that big a deal. Tsunami debris have been drifting across the Pacific for untold ages. PNW beaches are so littered with them, collecting has long been a hobby of some. And human-made debris have been mixed in for thousands of years.

    I can see why scientists might want to hype the dangers to get funding for their research. But given our unprecedented budget deficits, we really should stay calm about this and not think that “Texas-sized” debris field is as tightly packed as that picture of a little cluster made just after the tsumani. I suspect that, if you were in a boat alongside one floating object, you’d have trouble spotting another within your range of vision.

  • grayson goss

    TEXAS? Damn Maybe I should go out there and claim it as mine! might be some valuable things there!

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Debbie Gnecco

    Melting sea stars, hardly any sardine catch, sea lions with bleeding lesions, yellow salmon, etc… something is very wrong with the ocean. The debris is not radioactive because it was swept out to sea before the reactors exploded and melted down, but the radioactive particles have been flowing into the ocean every day since it happened and will do the same for the foreseeable future. This article never mentions the name Fukushima…

  • Jamie Clemons

    Free boat. If you find it floating in the ocean its yours.

  • Rosa Caldwell

    Sure hate to hear this. We need to be prepared for it though.

  • Jesse Kloskey

    They didn’t mention the rash of body parts washing up around the Bay area that many suspect are from Japan…

    • Elderlybloke

      Body parts from 2011 will have become very much broken down (decomposed to be precise ) by now.
      Large and small organisms will have been active on the parts.

      There will be nothing in the ocean that can be recognised as Body Parts.

  • KartofflMuter

    If the Japanese could cross,who says other organisms couldn’t make across the Pacific? That’s a strange conclusion to come to. Rats came over on ships. Bugs and small animals surely can come floating over on a virtual island.Even Chris Columbus made it across-although he went West when he was looking to go East.

  • SilentRanger

    A study on bottom dwelling fish (for radioactive contamination) over time might be an interesting endeavor.

  • Work2SnowSki

    Looks like you could make a living off recycling some of that stuff, boats and floats. And then you just bill Japan for the cleanup.

  • Ghost

    how does that stuff float? why doesn’t it all sink?
    so, someone could ride across the ocean on that?

    • Breanna Draxler

      Actually, 70 percent of the debris from the tsunami did sink just off the coast of Japan. The remaining 30 percent is what’s making its way across the ocean now. The debris is not tightly packed enough for someone to ride on it, though. NOAA describes it more like flecks of pepper on the surface of a bowl of soup.

  • wendorms

    Great balls a’fire!

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Jocelyn Durels

    I’m guessing that when Native American Indians roamed the shores of North America they saw debris from ancient tsunamis and knew they weren’t alone.

  • Greg Powers

    Yay humans!!!!!

  • Biff Hardsteel

    I’m taking this with a Grain of salt. I mean where are the pictures ? Size of texas ? But no pictures ? Wouldn’t there be Satellite pics?
    None .. ‘Come on Man’ !

  • willie jagod

    the ball in the picture is similar I found while fishing in Kaloloch, Washington.


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