Japanese tsunami debris drifting to Hawaii
Los Angeles - The discovery of a fishing boat and other debris in the Pacific suggests flotsam from Japan's killer tsunami is drifting east faster than expected, researchers say.
The tsunami washed up to 20 million tons of debris off the Japanese coast on March 11, and researchers in Hawaii have developed computer models to forecast its movement and predict where and when it could come ashore.
They had predicted that the first landfall would be next spring on the Midway Islands, about 2 100km northwest of Honolulu on the main Hawaiian islands in the northern Pacific ocean.
But their calculations have been revised after a Russian ship travelling from Hawaii to the Russian Far East last month spied tsunami debris in the northwestern Pacific, including the 6m boat from Fukushima, near the site of the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
"The first populated area to be affected by the debris is Midway Atoll," Jan Hafner of the International Pacific Research Centre at the University of Hawaii told AFP on Monday.
"We expect this winter the first pieces of tsunami debris will arrive there," said Hafner, the computer programmer who has been mapping the projected debris field along with senior researcher Nikolai Maximenko.
The Russian sail training ship, the "STS Pallada," began spotting debris after passing the Midway Islands last month, he said.
On September 22 "we picked up on board the Japanese fishing boat. Radioactivity level normal, we’ve measured it with the Geiger," wrote the Russian vessel's first mate Natalia Borodina, logging the debris.
"At the approaches to the mentioned position [maybe 10-15 minutes before] we also sighted a TV set, fridge and a couple of other home appliances," she added, giving the GPS location as N31.04, E174.21.
Five days later, on September 27, she wrote: "We keep sighting every day things like wooden boards, plastic bottles, buoys from fishing nets [small and big ones], an object resembling wash basin, drums, boots, other wastes.
"All these objects are floating past the ship," she noted.
The location where the boat was fished out of the ocean was some 3 500km from Japan and 3 000km from Honolulu.
Hafner said the massive tsunami generated an estimated five to 20 million tons of water-borne debris, and though a large portion has probably sunk "quite some amount is still floating."
"So far the 'STS Pallada' is the only confirmed observation of the debris," he added, appealing to other vessels passing through the area to watch out and report any more sightings.
With more information, researchers could predict more accurately when debris would reach the tourist beaches of Hawaii. "Based on STS Pallada observations, we expect the first debris to arrive to be light objects, mostly plastic.
"Then the heavier pieces will follow. Because the debris field is very patchy, the process of debris coming to beaches will be very gradual. So please do not expect waves of debris," he said.
"What misses Midway will continue towards the main Hawaiian Islands and the North American West Coast," added the institute.
The March 11 earthquake triggered a tsunami that tore into Japan's northeast coast, leaving 20 000 people dead or missing, while causing meltdowns and explosions at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
The subsequent release of radiation forced the evacuation of tens of thousands from within a 20km radius of the plant and spots beyond in the world's worst nuclear accident since the Chernobyl disaster in 1986.