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5 Percent of Tsunami Debris Could Reach US Coast

Up to five percent of the debris still floating in the ocean after last year's tsunami in Japan could wash ashore in North America, one scientist said yesterday.

The tsunami triggered by the devastating earthquake that struck off the east coast of Japan on March 11, 2011, produced an estimated 25 million tons of debris. Some 4 million tons of debris was swept into the ocean, with an estimated 2 million tons of debris still afloat. One to five percent of the debris still at sea could arrive on the shores Hawaii, Alaska, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia, the Associated Press reported.

"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," debris tracker Nikolai Maximenko, of the University of Hawaii, told the Associated Press.

new animation released last week shows the probable path of the debris, which is helpful to shipping traffic since some of the debris is dangerously large. Debris-tracking missions have already found two fishing vessels that were carried out to sea by the tsunami.

Since that magnitude 9.0 quake, the debris that has stayed afloat has drifted apart due to winds and ocean currents, with most of it moving eastward. Scientists have predicted the debris could wash up along the West Coast of the United States by next year. It is expected to hit Midway Atoll this winter and the main Hawaiian Islands in the winter of 2012-2013.

All is clear at the Midway Atoll so far this winter, though. The ocean currents have kept any debris away, said Jan Hafner of the International Pacific Research Center, who is part of the team that modeled the debris path.

The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has urged anyone that spots potential tsunami debris to report it by emailing DisasterDebris@noaa.gov.

You can follow OurAmazingPlanet staff writer Brett Israel on Twitter: @btisrael. Follow OurAmazingPlanet for the latest in Earth science and exploration news on Twitter @OAPlanet and on Facebook.