Scientists Search, Track Missing Tsunami Debris

Model Animations Show When Debris Will Wash Ashore

 UPDATED 10:43 PM HST Sep 16, 2011
HONOLULU -

More than six months after the earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan, researchers at the University of Hawaii are using new models to track the millions of tons of debris floating in the Pacific ocean.

Estimates of the debris floating in the ocean range between 10 and 20 million tons. Experts said the debris cloud now stretches 1,000 miles wide.

"But, of course, you cannot expect it to be floating forever. Some of it will sink. Probably, you don't expect a car to float all the way to Hawaii," said Jan Hafner, Scientific Computer Programmer at the International Pacific Research Center.

Scientists Hafner and Nikolai Maximenko developed two model animations to help pinpoint the debris field's location. One model shows to date movement of tracers carried by ocean currents. The other model is based on climatology. Although Hafner can't scientifically determine what will stay afloat or sink, or even how much of the debris will come ashore, he said the models can show when debris will reach certain areas.

"We estimate the first glance, we could see the first influx of marine debris from the Japanese tsunami will be Midway Island, and it will be this winter," said Hafner. "In the Spring of 2013, and it will come on the west shores of Hawaii."

He expects the west coast of the United States to see debris in three years.

The researchers are asking any ships in the northern pacific to report and document their findings and take samples, if possible. They warn that some objects may be hard to see or covered with algae and other marine life.

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