The Deluge

Millions of tons of debris from the Japanese Tsunami head toward Hawaii

A stew of debris from the Japanese tsunami. Photo: US Navy

Somewhere in the Pacific Ocean a confetti-like mass of trash and debris slowly lurches eastward. Nestled in its grip are the relics of lives quite literally washed away. Fishing boats, shoes, chunks of homes, they’re all there. Spawned from the 2011 tsunami that ravaged Japan, this floating field of trash could hold as many as 20 million tons of debris. And according to experts, in less than 12 months, this aquatic wasteland will begin littering the shores of the Hawaiian Islands.

After consuming more than 217 miles of Japanese coastline, the March 2011 tsunami seized nearly everything that wasn't bolted down; what didn't float quickly sank, and what did was dragged out to sea, where it was pulled east by the prevailing currents.

In September, a Russian sailing boat, Pallada, en route from Honolulu to Vladivostok, Russia, reported spotting a substantial amount of debris bearing Japanese markings near Midway Atoll. In addition to a small fishing boat from the Fukushima prefecture, the crew found a TV set, miscellaneous home appliances, a refrigerator, various pieces of wood, and plastic jugs, as well as a slew of other items.

Professor Nikolai Maximenko of the International Pacific Research Center has been a pivotal figure in tracking the movement of the debris. Not only has he been able to follow the floating mass of garbage, but he's also developed a model that will project its estimated course. The model, which is based off a 30-year study of the prevailing currents in the area, suggests that the Hawaiian Islands could see an impact as early as the winter of 2013.

According to projections formulated by Professor Maximenko and Jan Hafner, a computer programmer, due to the nature of the currents, the field of debris will make its way toward the Pacific Northwest after littering Hawaii. "The first landfall on Midway Islands is anticipated this winter," said a statement from the International Pacific Research Center. "What misses Midway will continue toward the main Hawaiian Islands and the North American West Coast."

After making landfall on the West Coast, the debris will slowly drift back toward the Hawaiian Islands.

In preparation, local NGOs like the Hawaii chapter of the Surfrider Foundation are already working on a strategy to handle the onslaught. "We've been working closely with NOAA to monitor the situation and to formulate a plan to deal with the debris when it does make landfall on the islands,” says Tim Tybuszewski, the organization’s Hawaii co-chairman. “When it arrives, we'll be organizing cleaning efforts to help minimize its effect on our beaches here in Hawaii."