Tsunami Debris 'Island' Headed for US? NOAA Sets Record Straight

Debris from Japanese Tsunami
An aerial view of debris from the earthquake and subsequent tsunami that struck northern Japan, taken on March 13, 2011, only days after the disaster struck. Debris fields such as these are no longer visible, according to NOAA. (Image credit: U.S. Navy)

Debris from the deadly tsunami that struck Japan in 2011 is drifting across the Pacific Ocean toward North America, and will likely continue to wash onto North American shores over the next few years, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

"A significant amount of debris has already arrived on U.S. and Canadian shores, and it will likely continue arriving in the same scattered way over the next several years," NOAA officials said in a statement. "As we get further into the fall and winter storm season, NOAA and partners are expecting to see more debris coming ashore in North America, including tsunami debris mixed in with the 'normal' marine debris that we see every year."

On March 11, 2011, a 9.0-magnitude earthquake struck off the east coast of Japan, triggering a devastating tsunami that killed more than 15,000 people and caused widespread destruction.

An estimated 5 million tons of debris — everything from boats to kitchen appliances — was swept into the Pacific Ocean by the tsunami. Roughly 70 percent of this detritus likely sank near the coast of Japan, but the rest (some 1.5 million tons) is scattered in the water, and has been drifting toward North America. [Tracking Tsunami Debris (Infographic)]

Recent reports suggested an island of debris the size of Texas was floating toward North America, but NOAA officials were quick to set the record straight.

"At this point, nearly three years after the earthquake and tsunami struck Japan, whatever debris remains floating is very spread out," NOAA officials said. "It is spread out so much that you could fly a plane over the Pacific Ocean and not see any debris, since it is spread over a huge area, and most of the debris is small, hard-to-see objects."

NOAA has been tracking the debris since 2011, and the agency recently updated its models to include the effects of wind on the debris, which vary depending on the material and how much of the object's surface is above water.

But there are still many unknowns surrounding where all that stuff will end up, and when pieces of debris may arrive on American shores.

"This new modeling effort gives us a better understanding of where the debris may have traveled to date, but it does not predict where it will go in the future or how fast it will drift," NOAA officials wrote in an update. "The new model takes into account that wind may move items at different speeds based on how high or low materials sit in the water."

Earlier this year, a small Japanese skiff washed ashore near Crescent City, Calif. Nearly 30 other pieces of debris — including fishing buoys, a soccer ball, other small boats and even two floating docks — have washed up in Oregon, Washington, Hawaii, Alaska and British Columbia.

The docks that were swept ashore in Washington and Oregon contained massive amounts of marine life, which required decontamination in order to prevent non-native invasive species from gaining a foothold along the U.S. coast.

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Denise Chow
Live Science Contributor

Denise Chow was the assistant managing editor at Live Science before moving to NBC News as a science reporter, where she focuses on general science and climate change. Before joining the Live Science team in 2013, she spent two years as a staff writer for Space.com, writing about rocket launches and covering NASA's final three space shuttle missions. A Canadian transplant, Denise has a bachelor's degree from the University of Toronto, and a master's degree in journalism from New York University.