Tsunami debris destined to litter ocean, US coast

Tsunami debris destined to litter ocean, US coast
With the back drop of the 330 ton fishing vessel Kyotoku Maru No. 18 which was flung 800 meters (0.5 mile) inland from Kesennuma port by the March 11, 2011, tsunami, the Kikuta family observe a moment of silence at a site where their house once stood.(AP Photo/Koji Sasahara)

When the monstrous tsunami of March 2011 struck the northeast coast of Japan, some 5 to 8 million tons of debris was swept into the pacific. While 70 percent to 75 percent of it sank a short time later, 1 to 2 million tons are still floating with some heading our way.

Satellites and computer models are tracking the tsunami junk which now covers almost 4 million square miles of the North Pacific, an area larger than the lower 48 United States. 

"It's nearly impossible to collect it all," says Senior Scientist Nikolai Maximenko with the International Pacific Research Center in Hawaii.

He says most of the debris will drift into what they call the North Pacific Gyre, a garbage patch area between California and Hawaii.

"Ninety five percent to 98 percent of the debris will collect and remain there for a while," says Maximenko.

There is some good news for the western United States beaches, Maximenko claims "only a small fraction of this debris will end up on our coastlines."

Wind driven debris will hit the coast first, along with any items sticking above the water line, like the derelict fishing boat found off the Canadian coast.

As for then rest of the junk, scientists hope that the constant grinding of the debris by currents and wave action in the Pacific garbage patch will cause it to sink.

Some debris will leak out from time to time, and " when it happens," Maximenko says, "it always goes toward Hawaii."

As of April 3, 2012, a few pieces of debris started showing up at Midway Island, but currents may be shifting and debris may eventually wash up with greater frequency.

Scientists have created computer models and a detailed slideshow  to show the debris flow, and how massive an area it already covers, courtesy of the International Pacific Research Center in Hawaii.