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Japanese tsunami debris tracked, drifting very slowly our way

SEATTLE – The Japanese tsunami back in March washed millions of tons of debris out to sea, and winds and currents are pushing it very slowly across the Pacific Ocean.

Scientists tracking the flotsam have new evidence that it does not pose a radiological threat despite the Japanese nuclear disaster that followed the tsunami.

The most recent sighting came from a Russian tall ship last month. It sailed for days through a vast debris field northwest of Midway Island in the western Pacific. A mate on board scanned the debris with a Geiger counter and detected no unusual radiation.

“The analysis that I’m familiar with indicates with very high confidence that there’s no radiological concern associated with the debris," said Kathy Sullivan, deputy administrator of the federal science agency NOAA.

Sullivan says aerial monitoring indicates the marine debris has dispersed widely. Some of it is sinking. That’s one reason she says it’s hard to estimate how much will eventually wash up on our shores.

Expected in 2013

In any event, the arrival of the first tsunami flotsam is far in the future still. Most scientists forecast it to approach the West Coast in 2013.

Oceanographer and flotsam/jetsam expert Curtis Ebbesmeyer in his blog, Beachcomber Alert,explains:

Over the next five years, according to the Ocean Surface-Current Simulator (OSCURS), the debris will be broadly distributed by the North Pacific Subarctic and Subtropical Gyres along the West Coast of North America and into Garbage Patches. The west coast of North America can expect plastics from the tsunami on the beaches in the spring of 2013, with the highest concentrations in Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia. Around the summer of 2014, debris will be seen in Hawaii and in the NW Hawaiian Islands, with the highest concentrations likely at French Frigate Shoals.

Sullivan says NOAA wants ocean mariners “to keep an eye out” for marine debris in the North Pacific. The agency is very eager to receive reports of at-sea sightings, which can be emailed to:

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Correspondent Tom Banse is an Olympia-based reporter with more than three decades of experience covering Washington and Oregon state government, public policy, business and breaking news stories. Most of his career was spent with public radio's Northwest News Network, but now in semi-retirement his work is appearing on other outlets.