Tons of Debris From Japan Tsunami Headed Towards U.S.

Official U.S. Navy Imagery/CC BY 2.0

It has nearly been a year since that horrifying magnitude-9 earthquake and resulting tsunami struck the coast of Japan, but the trouble is still far from over. According to scientists, a significant portion of the estimated 25 millions tons of debris washed to sea from the deadly natural disaster is on a collision course with U.S. shores, threatening to add another dimension to an already profoundly devastating event.

There's estimated to be 1 to 2 million tons of material remaining out at sea nearly 12 months after the tsunami swept through Japan, and experts say that 1 to 5 tons of it may very well reach the west coast of North America -- but it is slow moving. It won't be until the first half of next year, reports the San Jose Mercury News, that the first of the tsunami debris driftes ashore to the Hawaiin islands. A few months after that, coastal regions in the U.S. and Canada could begin to see debris collecting along the coast in 2013.

While much of the floating debris is likely housing materials and other lose debris, scientists say they expect bodies will be arriving too.

"Many of those bodies and parts of bodies will likely begin washing up in about a year, some simply as feet in athletic shoes, similar to those found in Puget Sound over the last decade," says Curtis Ebbesmeyer, an oceanographer based in Seattle.

These tons of floating debris soon to wash ashore across the Pacific may be a grim reminder of one of the worst natural disasters in recent years, but the scope of its threat to wildlife has yet to be tallied fully.

Nicholas Mallos, conservation biologist and marine debris specialist for the Ocean Conservancy, said many of the objects are expected to be from Japan's fishing industry. Fishing gear could harm wildlife, such as endangered Hawaiian monk seals, if it washes up on coral reefs or beaches.

"The major question is how much of that material has sank since last year, and how much of that remains afloat or still in the water column," Mallos said.

Tags: Japan | Natural Disasters | Oceans | Pollution