New estimate puts tsunami debris closer to U.S.



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Posted on April 13, 2012 at 6:46 PM

Updated Friday, Apr 13 at 10:46 PM

WESTPORT, Wash. -- Just weeks ago, oceanographers were still thinking it would take another year before debris from the March 2011 Japanese tsunami would start hitting America's west Coast.

But the discovery of a 164-foot Japanese fishing vessel 150 miles off the British Columbia coast three weeks ago caused a reassessment. Quickly dubbed the "ghost ship," the vessel drifted into Alaskan waters and was sunk by the U.S. Coast Guard.

"I think that raised a lot of awareness all across the country," said Doug Helton, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration employee who tracked the ship.

Helton also worked with a team of experts to prepare a new computer model showing where floating tsunami debris could be, and where it could be more concentrated. NOAA is the lead government agency dealing with tsunami debris.

For months, beach combers have reported finding objects along the beaches in Washington, Oregon, California, B.C. and Alaska -- toy balls, empty gas cans, an unsual flashlight.

The objects appear to come from Japan, but efforts to identify whether or not they came specifically from the tsunami zone are hard to prove. 

But skepticism has given way to acceptance, thanks to a new NOAA computer model that shows that the entire West Coast might well have seen Japanese objects from the tsunami.

"It's looking morre likely that some of these items are related.  We can't confirm, but they'e highly suspect," said Helton.

The driving factor of the new NOAA model is wind and weather. Previously, models looked at historic data on ocean currents. But the new model factors in "windage" -- the higher an object sits out of the water, the more likely it will be driven at a rate faster than the current alone.

NOAA says the model is not a forecast of where the debris is heading.

The Japanese government says 5 million tons of debris was pulled out to sea by the tsunami. Seventy percent of that debris soon sank.  That would leave around 1.5 million tons floating on the ocean that could contain hazardous material, such as fuel tanks, propane tanks, tanks containing industrial chemicals and pesticides.

If you have debris to report you can email:

The Washington Department of Health also has tsunami debris safety information online.