Still a threat, but tsunami debris 'invisible'

Nov 22, 2011

Even though there is 100,000 tons of debris from the Japanese tsunami  on its way toward the Northwest, its virtually invisible unless you run into it.

“They could detect debris from space for over two weeks after the tsunami, but after that it became invisible,” said Jan Hafner of the International Pacific Research Center in Hawaii.

He, along with a group of researchers headed by Nikolai Maximenko, recently predicted the drift pattern of tsunami debris across the Pacific Ocean.

On Nov. 2, Senator Maria Cantwell introduced an amendment to address the growing threat of debris left over from the Japanese tsunami in March. She says the debris poses a threat to jobs in the Northwest.

Cantwell called the debris an “emerging threat” that needs to be addressed immediately. The mass, consisting of everything from refrigerators to microscopic plastic fragments, is certainly big, but is it visible from space?

Invisible to satellites

For over two weeks NASA satellites were used to track the debris as it moved throughout the coast of Japan, but now Hafner says the debris has dispersed and is only visible up close.

“The debris field is over 2,000 nautical miles long and 1,000 nautical miles wide.” He said. That’s only 100 pounds of debris for every mile.

The images from the NASA satellites used to track the debris are not available to the public, and no satellites are currently being used to view the debris, but a Russian ship found some debris right where scientists at the IPRC predicted it would be. The Russian sailing ship, the Pallada, encountered naturally buoyant debris like wooden boards, plastic bottles and eventually hoisted up a small, 20 foot long fishing vessel.

“The Russian vessel measured some debris with a Geiger Counter, so radiation contamination is unlikely, but you can guess the effects of small plastic particles on marine life,” said Hafner. “Those particles can get into the food chain. Large fishing nets could potentially trap and injure marine life as well.”

According to the IPRC prediction, the debris will not reach the Northwest until 2014, but currently there are no plans to clean the debris before it reaches the coast. 

On the Web: