(Mallos removes inaccurate references to California in quotes
describing area of debris, paragaphs 17, 18)
By Bill Rigby
SEATTLE, March 26 An empty Japanese fishing boat
drifting off the coast of western Canada could be the first wave
of 1.5 million tons of debris heading toward North America from
Japan's tsunami last March.
The wreckage from flattened Japanese coastal towns -
including refrigerators, washing machines, televisions, roofs
and fishing nets - is heading inexorably east across the Pacific
and could arrive sooner than expected, according to the U.S.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
"The early indication is that things sitting higher up on
the water could potentially move across the Pacific Ocean
quicker than we had originally thought," said Nancy Wallace,
director of NOAA's Marine Debris Program, which had forecast the
appearance of tsunami debris on North American shores only in
"Those higher-wind, quicker moving items may actually be
onshore much sooner - pretty much now."
On March 20, Canada's transport department spotted what it
said was an empty Japanese fishing vessel 150 nautical miles
south of the Queen Charlotte Islands, adjacent to the main coast
of British Columbia.
The ship has been declared a hazard to shipping, but Canada
has not said what - if anything - it will do with it. The
country's Coast Guard said it will take action only if fuel
spills from the ship, which is not likely.
The so-called ghost ship is the first major piece of
evidence that Japanese tsunami debris is heading to the United
"It does confirm that debris generated by the tsunami will
make landfall on the west coast of North America," said Nicholas
Mallos, a conservation biologist and marine debris specialist at
the independent Ocean Conservancy, which monitors the problem of
"However, what the quantity of that debris is, what it looks
like, all of those questions are still largely unanswered."
The NOAA, which is part of the U.S. Department of Commerce,
initially expected to find debris hitting the northern Hawaiian
islands this winter and moving slowly onto Alaska, Canada and
the U.S. West Coast next year. But those forecasts, made shortly
after the tsunami on limited historical current and wind models,
are proving inaccurate.
The agency is finding that debris is moving north of
Hawaii's northernmost points, and making its way to the
continent ahead of schedule, said Wallace. It is now tweaking
its forecast to account for new material, such as analysis of
recent oil spills and how wind will affect some objects more
"Right now, we are trying to get that methodology of the new
models validated by peer review experts," she said.
WALL OF WATER
A magnitude 9.0 earthquake off Japan's northeast coast on
March 11, 2011, triggered a 75-foot (23-metre) wall of water
that flattened waterfront towns, killing 16,000. Three thousand
people are still unaccounted for.
U.S. authorities were immediately aware that the clockwise
circulation of the Pacific's northern waters would deliver some
remnants of that destruction.
But the extent and composition of the debris is unclear. For
about a month after the tsunami, a 'debris field' was visible by
satellite. But it has since been dispersed, making it impossible
to track except from vessels.
The Japanese government has estimated that debris from the
coastal prefectures of Iwate, Miyagi, and Fukushima totaled 5
million tons. Of that, it says, 70 percent would have sunk
quickly onto the coastal seabed of Japan, but the other 30
percent, or 1.5 million tons, would have floated. It is
impossible to say how much of that will break up and sink en
route and how much will end up on American beaches.
"What oceanographers are estimating right now is that the
debris is dispersed over an area of 2,000 miles by 1,000 miles,"
said Mallos at Ocean Conservancy.
"Within that area there is large variability in terms of how
dispersed the debris is. It's certainly not a solid floating
mass of debris."
Mallos is set to embark on a one-month voyage from Tokyo to
the Hawaiian island of Maui on June 1 to follow the projected
path of the debris and finds out more about it.
One of the difficulties is how to distinguish tsunami debris
from regular ocean trash, which is a growing issue in its own
"Unfortunately debris is a problem every single day," said
Wallace. "We're doing baseline monitoring of debris along the
West Coast, Hawaii and Alaska, working closely with locals,
trying to get a handle on what baseline numbers are so that if
there's an upswing in debris we might be able to trace it back
to the tsunami."
The NOAA advises people to clear up small pieces of trash -
such as plastic bottles - but to report heavy or potentially
dangerous items to local authorities.
Wallace said the agency will work with the U.S. State
Department and the Japanese diplomatic missions to organize the
return of any valuable or sentimental items such as jewelry or
photographs, if the need arises.
"What we are saying is, if you see anything let us know. And
also if you don't see anything, let us know that too because
that's helpful in terms of trying to model and estimate when
debris could come ashore," said Wallace.
"Will there be a flotilla of washing machines across the
Pacific Ocean? No. Could there be an appliance here and there?
Yes, it's a possibility."
(Reporting By Bill Rigby; editing by Mohammad Zargham)