The sequence of horrific events in Japan earlier this year — earthquake, tsunami and the Fukushima power plant meltdown — devastated the country, taking nearly 20,000 lives, exposing the northeast coastline to radiation and leaving an estimated 45 million cubic meters of radioactive waste in its wake. While Japan’s efforts to recover from the ruin may take decades, marine debris from the wreckage has been drifting toward Hawaii and the U.S. West Coast.  
Current data computer models used by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) suggest that the debris won’t reach the West Coast until 2013. Officials suggest that the debris will most likely reach coastlines of Canada, Washington and Oregon, sparing California. But when using models that also take wind into account, experts advise the entire western coastline to be on the lookout.

“There could be propane gas tanks and chunks of houses that can act like sails and arrive a few months from now if there is enough wind on the debris,” explained Marcus Eriksen, director of project development of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation. “Anybody from Ventura [area] who does Transpac (yacht racing) or goes sailing offshore should be on the watch for large debris.”

Models show a menacing cloud of debris floating toward Hawaii and the West Coast. Scientists at University of Hawaii have estimated that the cloud contains 5 million to 20 million tons of debris. Initially, satellite imagery could detect the debris because it was more intact. Over time, however, the debris has dispersed, and the models indicate “possible debris spread,” explained Nancy Wallace, director of NOAA Marine Debris Program.

“It’s not like there is an island of trash moving toward the U.S.,” said Wallace. “It’s more dispersed. Right after the event, there was satellite imagery and you could see the debris in the water, but as time went by, it dispersed and broke up. You can’t see it from satellites anymore. … We don’t know where it, what it is, or where it’s going, but we have an idea based on the models.” 

The Santa Barbara Channelkeeper, which monitors local waterways, does not yet have a tsunami debris program in place, but talks are underway.

“If we see any this far south, it wouldn’t be for some time now,” said Michael Sheehy, marine programs director for the Santa Barbara Channelkeeper, “but it’s an amazing event and issue, and we do want to be on the lookout. This is all very tragic and we take it seriously.”

The NOAA doesn’t consider it likely that the debris is radioactive, as it was washed out to sea before the release of radioactive water from the power plant. In late September, a Russian training ship in the North Pacific encountered, collected and tested tsunami debris, which included a refrigerator, a TV and a damaged 20-foot fishing vessel with Fukushima markings, and reported no detection of radiation.

To report significant debris sightings in the open ocean, contact the NOAA at