The Deluge

Millions of tons of debris from the Japanese Tsunami head toward Hawaii

| posted on February 16, 2012

A stew of debris from the Japanese tsunami. Photo: US Navy

Somewhere in the Pacific Ocean a confetti-like mass of trash and debris slowly lurches eastward. Nestled in its grip are the relics of lives quite literally washed away. Fishing boats, shoes, chunks of homes, they’re all there. Spawned from the 2011 tsunami that ravaged Japan, this floating field of trash could hold as many as 20 million tons of debris. And according to experts, in less than 12 months, this aquatic wasteland will begin littering the shores of the Hawaiian Islands.

After consuming more than 217 miles of Japanese coastline, the March 2011 tsunami seized nearly everything that wasn’t bolted down; what didn’t float quickly sank, and what did was dragged out to sea, where it was pulled east by the prevailing currents.

In September, a Russian sailing boat, Pallada, en route from Honolulu to Vladivostok, Russia, reported spotting a substantial amount of debris bearing Japanese markings near Midway Atoll. In addition to a small fishing boat from the Fukushima prefecture, the crew found a TV set, miscellaneous home appliances, a refrigerator, various pieces of wood, and plastic jugs, as well as a slew of other items.

Professor Nikolai Maximenko of the International Pacific Research Center has been a pivotal figure in tracking the movement of the debris. Not only has he been able to follow the floating mass of garbage, but he’s also developed a model that will project its estimated course. The model, which is based off a 30-year study of the prevailing currents in the area, suggests that the Hawaiian Islands could see an impact as early as the winter of 2013.

According to projections formulated by Professor Maximenko and Jan Hafner, a computer programmer, due to the nature of the currents, the field of debris will make its way toward the Pacific Northwest after littering Hawaii. “The first landfall on Midway Islands is anticipated this winter,” said a statement from the International Pacific Research Center. “What misses Midway will continue toward the main Hawaiian Islands and the North American West Coast.”

After making landfall on the West Coast, the debris will slowly drift back toward the Hawaiian Islands.

In preparation, local NGOs like the Hawaii chapter of the Surfrider Foundation are already working on a strategy to handle the onslaught. “We’ve been working closely with NOAA to monitor the situation and to formulate a plan to deal with the debris when it does make landfall on the islands,” says Tim Tybuszewski, the organization’s Hawaii co-chairman. “When it arrives, we’ll be organizing cleaning efforts to help minimize its effect on our beaches here in Hawaii.”

  • Martin Matej

    Thank you Japan…

  • Michael B

    Question: Why isn’t the debris from the tsunami heading towards the north pacific gyre? It seems to meet the confluence of the great currents would direct this this gargantuan pile of flotsam (jetsam?) toward the pacific garbage patch… any thoughts?

  • Travis

    Martin, way to blame the victim as if it was Japan’s fault 217 miles of their coast was destroyed by a tsunami. Get real.

  • stu

    how about sending out ships to go and try to scoop up some of the debris before it makes landfall?

  • Bigler

    Michael… it’s “flotsom”…. if it is accidental debris… it is flotsom (think “float”), if it is tossed overboard… “jetsam” (think ‘jettison’… to throw…)

    Stu… dropped on head at birth right? Do the rough math… 200+ MILES of debris, by how thick?… by how wide is a ship… by how many ships?… and then the “where do you put it…”

    Currents…. currents follow coastlines (generally) and no doubt a large body of debris is in the near shore swirl cycle… but also take into account that a tsunami is not a WAVE… it is a substantial movement (ie a tidal bore) of displaced water. Enough so that it can interrupt a current cycle… or in this case take debris that would have stayed near shore… out into deeper shipping channels and deep water currents.

    The equator provides a barrier line for alternating northern swirls to meet the reversed southern swirls…. and here they create a lateral current… not circular.

    so… debris swept into this area… would not stick to the model plan. As well in the middle of most LARGE bodies of water… are current deadzones where stuff stores up… that will become true for most of this stuff… the wood will eventually log and fall, the appliances decompose and rust and rot… and fall… and then all the poly/plastic… will join the heaps of other stuff we thoughtlessly “need” and discard daily…

  • dale kobetich

    i say recover these debris and make new homes …recycle this stuff…and give to japan…they need the worlds help..

  • William Parkyn

    Treat this debris with respect. This mass was other people prized possessions and perhaps loved ones.

  • roy machedo

    could there also possibly be very valuable things floating in this mass or sunk in the ocean ? derp

  • in the gym on creatine and steroids

    the debris has now come ashore.

    kala’s big muscles, ju jitsui, and attitude couldn’t save the islands …

  • Rick Wilson

    See this article on Surfrider Foundation’s Beachapedia website for more information about the tsunami debris:

  • Erik Van Erne

    See this video with the Japanese tsunami debris field :

  • bob

    Well, I felt so sorry for Japan after the Tsunami, even donating what I could to the international red cross for their relief efforts. I was naive though, I thought that they would be ending their whale hunts off of the Antarctic, but they have not. Now I feel sorry for the whale families, for the baby whales who watch their mothers being harpooned, and the mothers knowing that their babies will die without their protection. I now am donating funds to the sea shepherd organization for their relentless and heroic efforts to end Japan’s blood lust.