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Midway Atoll Expecting Japan Tsunami Debris Soon

Latest projection of the debris path, as of March 6, 2012.
Latest projection of the debris path, as of March 6, 2012.

Japanese debris swept into the ocean by last year's massive earthquake-caused  tsunami is still likely a year away from washing up in Hawaii, but folks at Midway are expecting some soon.

Ocean currents have kept the debris away from Midway past the expected arrival date, but those currents are constantly changing, said Jan Hafner of the International Pacific Research Center, a member of a team that is using computers to model the debris path.

"The prediction was for Midway Atoll this winter, and the winter 2012-13 for the main Hawaiian Islands," Hafner said.

Hafner and colleagues are keeping tabs on the debris, and their latest measurements show the extent to which the debris field has spread just to the north of Midway.

The debris has dispersed and is not visible by satellites, so scientists have deployed hundreds of high-tech devices to help monitor the path of the debris, which could be hazardous to ships, marine life and coastlines.

A few big pieces have been found at sea. In September a Russian ship reported the edge of the debris field 250 miles (400 kilometers) northwest of Midway. About 100 miles (161 km) farther on, the ship found a 20-foot-long (6 meters) boat from Fukushima, which was identified by its markings.

Up to 5 percent of the debris still floating in the ocean after last year's tsunami in Japan could wash ashore in North America, experts have predicted.

Along the West Coast of North America, news reports have suggested  debris is already arriving. However, debris from Asia routinely washes up there, so scientists are cautious before declaring any debris to be from the March 2011 tsunami. Scientists look for identifying markers, such as registration numbers, to determine the origin of any debris.

One of the fishing vessels had markings on the wheelhouse of the boat that showed its homeport to be in Fukushima Prefecture, the area hardest hit by the massive tsunami.

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

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.

Brett Israel was a staff writer for Live Science with a focus on environmental issues. He holds a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry and molecular biology from The University of Georgia, a master’s degree in journalism from New York University, and has studied doctorate-level biochemistry at Emory University.