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Tsunami Debris Closing on Hawaii Beaches

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tsunami debris at sea

A Japanese home is seen adrift in the Pacific Ocean. Ships and aircraft from the Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group are searching for survivors in the coastal waters near Sendai, Japan. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Dylan McCord

One of the most iconic photos to appear after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Japan was that of a house, floating alone in the sea. The U.S. Navy photo illustrates the nature of the tsunami, which not only damaged buildings ashore but swept debris from the shore out to sea. Estimates vary on the amount of debris but KITV-4 in Hawaii quotes experts as saying it may range from five to twenty million tons.

An aerial view of debris from an 8.9 magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami that struck northern Japan

An aerial view of debris from an 8.9 magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami that struck northern Japan. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Dylan McCord

A Russian sail training ship, the STS Pallada, ran in to the debris field about 700 miles northwest of Midway atoll in September. Researchers at the International Pacific Research Center (IPRC), University of Hawaii at Manoa modeling the anticipated movement of the mass of debris were startled since the field has moved east much faster than expected. Under the direction of Nikolai Maximenko, senior researcher on the project, new estimates are being produced that project the arrival of tsunami debris at various locations in the Pacific.

Jan Hafner, from the IPRC, reports in an e-mail, that the debris should begin to reach the Midway atoll in January 2012. Hawaii should see the debris washing ashore from December 2012 onward. The U.S. Pacific West Coast should begin to see the debris in late 2013 and early 2014.

The Russians report seeing much more than just wood and plastic floating in the debris field. They recovered a small fishing vessel, and have seen televisions, refrigerators, boots and even a drum. They encountered the floating objects for hundreds of miles as they sailed towards Vladivostok. Their Geiger counter revealed no radiation threat from the material that they saw.

Midway is home to the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, which was heavily damaged by the tsunami that generated the debris. Miriam Goldstein, a doctoral student at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, writes on the site Deep Sea News that Hawaii will see two hits from the debris field. The currents will carry the debris west to east through the islands and then after reaching the U.S. West Coast, carry them back east to west.

The debris will impact both Midway and the Hawaiian islands but the extent is presently unknown. It is not known what preparations public authorities are making. Attempts to reach the Governor of Hawaii’s office, the U.S. Navy at Pearl Harbor and the National Wildlife Service’s Midway office have been unsuccessful at this time.

With only the observations of the Russian ship, the IPRC is eager to receive additional reports and GPS data. They are interested in the following data:

GPS location, time and description of the debris, state of the sea and weather

Photos would also be appreciated. Jan Hafner would like any reports sent to him at jhafner@hawaii.edu .

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