Video: Debris from Japanese tsunami could hit US

  1. Transcript of: Debris from Japanese tsunami could hit US

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: Almost seven months now since the devastating earthquake and the resulting

    tsunami in Japan. The numbers are still staggering from there: more than 15,000 people dead, 130,000 people forced from their homes, and tonight an amazing kind of environmental delayed reaction. A huge island of trash and debris from the quake drifting across the Pacific Ocean toward US shores. NBC 's Kate Snow with us here in studio with more on this. Kate :

    KATE SNOW reporting: Brian , just after the tsunami hit, scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of Hawaii started making models using calculations based on tides and currents to project where all that debris from Japan would end up. But now they have proof, sightings from a ship telling them where potentially millions of tons of trash is and where it's headed. March 11th, Tsunami waves crash over Japan , wiping out entire communities, sweeping everything that isn't nailed down out to sea. More than 300,000 buildings, cars, boats, refrigerators, furniture, you name it. And this is where it all is today, giant fields of floating debris in the middle of the Pacific Ocean .

    Mr. MIKE BECK (The Nature Conservancy Lead Marine Scientist): The area that we're talking about that this debris is floating within is something on the order of twice the size of Texas .

    SNOW: US Navy ships have had to steer around the islands of garbage, and now the discovery that it's moving faster than scientists had expected. They now project some of it will hit the Midway Islands by January. Currents would sweep it to the US West Coast in 2013 and back to the Hawaiian Islands in 2014 and 2015 .

    Mr. BECK: I'm very concerned about the impact. The everyday pollution from refrigerators and televisions and ports, that's a lot of toxic chemicals that are going to stress our marine life and habitats even more than they already are.

    SNOW: Last month scientists at the University of Hawaii asked the crew on board this historic Russian tall ship the Pallada to document what they saw as they sailed from Honolulu to Vladivostok , Russia . Just past the Midway Islands , they couldn't miss the mess. The boat's crew made notes about appliances, boards, plastic bottles, buoys from fishing nets, drums, boots. A fishing boat they hoisted up left no doubt about where it all came from. The markings say Fukushima Prefecture . Government scientists stress that this isn't a wave of debris that will hit all at once, but all this trash could affect coastal habitats, wildlife, boaters, as well. They're also asking West Coast and Hawaii residents to help them track this trash, Brian . You can learn more about that on our website. Of course, that's

    WILLIAMS: Really an unbelievable slow motion story. Kate Snow with it here tonight. Kate , thanks, as

updated 10/24/2011 8:22:50 PM ET 2011-10-25T00:22:50

Debris from the devastating tsunami that hit Japan on March 11 has turned up exactly where scientists predicted it would after months of floating across the Pacific Ocean. Finding and confirming where the debris ended up gives them a better idea of where it's headed next.

The magnitude 9.0 quake and ensuing tsunami that struck off the coast of Tohoku in Japanwas so powerful that it broke off huge icebergs thousands of miles away in the Antarctic, locally altered Earth's gravity field, and washed millions of tons of debris into the Pacific.

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Scientists at the International Pacific Research Center at the University of Hawaii at Manoa have been trying to track the trajectory of this debris, which can threaten small ships and coastlines. The new sightings should help the scientists predict when the debris, which ranges from pieces of fishing vessels to TV sets, will arrive at sensitive locations, such as marine reserves. (Scientists estimate the debris will wash up on the Hawaii Islands in two years and the U.S. West Coast in three.)

Debris sighted
For nearly half a year, senior researcher Nikolai Maximenko and computer programmer Jan Hafner had only their state-of-the-art — but still untested — computer model of ocean currents to speculate where the tsunami debris might end up. The new sightings are backing up the model, showing debris in places where the model predicted.

Hoisting up to Pallada the Japanese boat registered to Fukushima prefecture and, presumably, washed into the ocean during the March 11 tsunami.

Warned by maps of the scientists' model, a Russian ship, the STS Pallada, found an array of unmistakable tsunami debris on its homeward voyage from Honolulu to Vladivostok.

Soon after passing Midway Islands, crew members aboard the Pallada spotted a surprising number of floating items.

"Yesterday, i.e. on September 22, in position 31 [degrees] 42,21 N and 174 [degrees] 45,21 E, we picked up on board the Japanese fishing boat. Radioactivity level — normal, we've measured it with the Geiger counter," wrote Natalia Borodina, information and education mate of the Pallada. "At the approaches to the mentioned position (maybe 10 – 15 minutes before) we also sighted a TV set, fridge and a couple of other home appliances."

Later, on Sept. 27, she wrote: "We keep sighting every day things like wooden boards, plastic bottles, buoys from fishing nets (small and big ones), an object resembling wash basin, drums, boots, other wastes. All these objects are floating by the ship."

Image: Debris distribution
Nikolai Maximenko and Jan Hafner
A map shows the Pallada's route through a model projection of tsunami debris. The purple color shows the distribution of debris as projected by the computer model for Sept. 25. The red rhombus marks the location where the Japanese boat was found, and the red circle denotes where maximum debris density was encountered.

Where debris hits next
On Oct. 8, the Pallada entered the port of Vladivostok and Borodina was able to send pictures.

The most remarkable piece of debris is of a small fishing vessel about 20 feet (6 meters)long, which they were able to hoist up onto the Pallada. The markings on the wheelhouse of the boat show its homeport to be in the Fukushima Prefecture, the area hardest hit by the massive tsunami.

With the exact locations of some of the now widely scattered debris, the scientists can make more accurate projections about when the debris might arrive at the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. The first landfall on Midway Islands is anticipated this winter. What misses Midway will continue toward the main Hawaiian Islands, where it is expected to hit in two years, and then on to the West Coast of North America in three years.

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