Researchers in Hawaii who predicted that a wave of debris from Japan’s March 11 tsunami may hit Hawaiian shores by 2013 are preparing studies that may allow more precise forecasts.
The preparations come a month after a Russian ship found “unmistakable tsunami debris” – including a refrigerator, a TV and a damaged 20-foot fishing vessel – in the Pacific Ocean between Japan and the Midway Atoll, according to the International Pacific Research Center of the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
The fishing boat had markings that indicated it came from Japan’s Fukushima Prefecture, the university said.
“The most important thing the (Russian ship did in September) did was provide solid proof of the existence of the tsunami debris,” researcher Nikolai Maximenko said Wednesday. “Soon we hope to have better information and to make exact forecasts for the landfall of debris for Midway (Atoll).”
Maximenko and fellow researcher Jan Hafner predicted in April – using computer models developed from observations of how buoys drift in the ocean – that some of the debris that the tsunami carried away would reach the Hawaiian islands by 2013. Some debris would then hit the western U.S. and Canadian coasts by 2014 before bouncing back toward Hawaii for a second impact.
They also predict that some of the smaller, lighter debris such as plastic bottles could reach the Midway Atoll, more than 1,200 miles northwest of Hawaii, by this winter.
Estimates from various sources including the Japanese government indicate that between 10 million and 25 million tons of debris – including houses, tires, trees and appliances – were washed to sea by the tsunami, Maximenko said.
Like any maritime debris, a vast majority of it will either sink or end up in an oceanic garbage patch, a sort of circulating, floating collection hundreds of miles in diameter, in this case between Hawaii and California, Maximenko said. He predicts that only 1% to 5% of the tsunami debris will wash ashore.
But the debris is notable because such a vast amount was released at once and because it includes plenty of large objects not normally put into the sea, according to Maximenko. These two factors could have unique implications for marine life and ship safety, he said.
Maximenko said that before mid-November, he hopes to have volunteers sailing into the tsunami debris field to deploy various objects that can be tracked by satellites. The objects – of three different shapes and sizes – will help the International Pacific Research Center track where various types of debris are going and help it predict when debris will hit U.S. and Canadian shores.
He said more research funding is needed to monitor maritime debris and study its impact.
“One on hand, we have a critical understanding of ocean dynamics, but on the other hand we have practically no tools to monitor this kind of debris,” Maximenko said.