Tracking the Japanese Tsunami Debris

Most people will have seen the images depicting the devastating impact of the 9.0 Tohoku Earthquake which destroyed coastal towns along the Japanese east coast near Sendai. Entire villages and communities are gone, along with the lives that inhabited them.

Of less, but still important, concern than the lives lost, is what will happen to all the debris which was washed out to sea as a result of the tsunami.

Projections of just what will happen to the debris have been made by Nikolai Maximenko and Jan Hafner at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa‘s International Pacific Research Center, shown in the animated image below.

  • The debris first spreads out eastward from the Japan Coast in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre.
  • In a year, the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument will see pieces washing up on its shores.
  • In two years, the remaining Hawaiian islands will see some effects.
  • In three years, the plume will reach the U.S. West Coast, dumping debris on Californian beaches and the beaches of British Columbia, Alaska, and Baja California.
  • The debris will then drift into the famous North Pacific Garbage Patch, where it will wander around and break into smaller and smaller pieces.
  • In five years, Hawaiʻi shores can expect to see another barrage of debris that is stronger and longer-lasting than the first one.
Courtesy of the US Navy

This influx of rubbish into the World Ocean is not unexpected, or even new. For a long time our planet’s oceans have been a dumping ground for rubbish flowing in from rivers, washed off beaches, not to mention the amount of rubbish spawned from oil and gas platforms and from fishing, tourist, and merchant vessels.

The massive influx of debris from the tsunami will only serve to magnify the problem.

Maximenko’s model has helped locate three of the five predicted ocean garbage patches. The North Pacific Garbage Patch is well known, and the North Atlantic Garbage Patch has also gained some attention of late. But Maximenko’s model predicts that there are five major regions in the World Ocean where debris collects, and by using that model researchers have been able to find the other garbage patches in the South Atlantic, South Indian Ocean, and South Pacific.

Source: University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa
Image Source: Nikolai Maximenko, International Pacific Research Center, University of Hawaii at Manoa

5 thoughts on “Tracking the Japanese Tsunami Debris”

  1. Interesting work, but we really need some better editors in this world.

    “This influx of rubbish into the World Ocean is not unexpected, or even knew. ”

    I think you meant new !!

  2. This is incredible. I wouldn’t have thought of all the debris that was washed out to sea. Not to make light of the situation, but it seems like there would be a lot of valuable items floating out there. I bet we start seeing pirates of some sort out there trying to collect stuff.

  3. Sir, thank you for the article… I and my partner are building a business comprised of barges, Ocean Tugs and professional recovery machinery. I have been asking about this situation since the Tsunami happened. NOAA, National Ocean Service, EPA and many more have turned a deaf ear to me with all questions going unheeded, unanswered… blackhole effect… I appreciate your article that may get their heads out of the sand as 1,250,000 tons of floatsom heads to Hawaii.. and on towards the west coast of North America. Thank you for your foresight in this matter, great job!!! maybe now NOAA will answer.

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