Japan Tsunami Debris FAQs
Now that some tsunami debris has arrived, what do you expect to happen in the future?
NOAA anticipates that in the late fall and throughout the winter of 2012-2013, seasonal changes in North Pacific winds and currents will cause marine debris of mixed types to wash ashore on western coastlines of North America. Hawaii can also expect to see mixed debris during this time, since debris will likely travel west toward the Main Hawaiian Island with ocean currents.This debris will likely intermittently scatter along the coast, as was observed in 2011-2012. These expectations are based on general debris behavior, model outputs, and patterns in at-sea sightings reports that all point to debris being widely dispersed over large areas.
The NOAA model shows that bulk of the debris is likely still dispersed north of the Main Hawaiian Islands and east of Midway Atoll. Beachgoers may notice an increase in debris on beaches over many years, in addition to marine debris that normally washes up, depending on where ocean currents carry it.
Is the tsunami marine debris radioactive?
Radiation experts agree that it is highly unlikely that any tsunami generated marine debris will hold harmful levels of radiation from the Fukushima nuclear emergency.
Some debris in West Coast states has been tested, including items known to be from the tsunami, and no radioactive contamination above normal was found. Marine debris in Hawaii has been monitored since April 2011, and no radioactive contamination above normal levels has been found.
How much debris is out there? Is there a debris field?
The Japanese government estimated that the tsunami swept about 5 million tons of debris into the ocean, but that 70 percent sank off shore, leaving 1.5 million tons floating. There is no estimate of how much of that debris is still floating, now that it has been at sea for more than a year.
We do know that the debris is no longer in a mass. Rather, many items are scattered across an area of the North Pacific that is roughly three times the size of the continental United States.
What kinds of debris should we expect?
While we do not know exactly what debris is still floating at or near the ocean surface, it likely includes highly buoyant materials.
So far, items that are confirmed to have come from the Japan tsunami include vessels, buoys, sports balls, a floating pier, and a motorcycle in a container. Other types of debris that could wash up include floating debris such as fishing nets, lumber, plastics, household items, foam pieces, and possibly chemical or oil drums.
Which areas of the U.S. and Canada will be most impacted by the debris?
Items could make landfall anywhere from Alaska down to California and Hawaii, or they could get pulled into existing "garbage patches."
Marie debris is pushed through the ocean by wind and currents, and no one is able to accurately predict how winds and currents will behave more than a week in advance; it's a little bit like predicting the weather. NOAA's models give us an understanding of where debris is located today, but they do not predict where debris will go in the future.
Is it possible to tell the difference between Japanese tsunami marine debris and other marine debris?
In most cases, it is extremely difficult to determine whether debris came from the tsunami. Items from Asia, such as buoys or litter, wash up on the U.S. Pacific coast all the time, so it's very difficult to tell where the debris came from came from without unique identifying information. Significant changes in type and amount on a shoreline are an indicator that debris is from the tsunami.
Not every item found on our shorelines is from the Japan tsunami. Marine debris is an every-day problem, especially around the Pacific.
There have been a lot of media reports of tsunami debris, why are there only a few "confirmed" sightings on the NOAA map?
Tracing objects back to their origin is very difficult. Items from around the world wash up on U.S. shorelines every day. For example, it is quite possible that some items reported as tsunami debris – with Japanese writing on them – are not tsunami debris at all.
Since the tsunami, NOAA has received over 1,000 reports of debris from the general public and partners at sea and on shore. While many of these debris objects may fit the profile of tsunami debris, only a few can be traced back to the disaster with 100 percent certainty based on a clear "fingerprint," such as a government registration or personal information.The sightings listed as "confirmed" tsunami debris on this site represent objects reported to NOAA that NOAA or our partners, working the Government of Japan and its Consulates, have confirmed to have originated in the tsunami impact zone. The presence of the confirmed sightings indicates that tsunami debris has definitely reached our shorelines, but not all of what has arrived has been reported or can be confirmed.
Is the debris dangerous? Should I avoid the beach?
The public should continue to visit and enjoy our oceans and coasts, and help keep them clean. Most marine debris is not harmful, but we do encourage beachgoers to remain aware of their surroundings and handle any debris with safety in mind. If you don't know what it is, don't touch it. If it appears hazardous, please contact appropriate authorities.
We also encourage boaters to stay alert, especially at night, since large debris can be a hazard to navigation.
What should I do if I see debris?
If you see small debris, like bottles, aluminum, or Styrofoam, remove the debris from the beach and recycle as much as possible. Larger, hazardous, or unmanageable debris could be a safety risk and should be left alone and reported to local authorities.
Some West Coast states have established toll-free phone lines for reporting all categories of marine debris, including potentially hazardous debris:
Oregon: Call 2-1-1
Washington: Call 1-855-WACOAST (1-855-922-6278)
Marine debris items or significant accumulations potentially related to the tsunami can also be reported to DisasterDebris@noaa.gov with as much information as possible (including its location, the date and time you found it, photos and other relevant descriptions). It is important to remember that not all debris found on U.S. shorelines is from Japan or the tsunami, so please use your discretion when reporting items.
How can I help?
There are many ways communities or individuals can help:
1. Clean up
Communities and volunteers can organize beach clean-ups for typical small debris, like bottles, or get involved in existing efforts. Since marine debris is an every-day problem, there's no need to wait for debris from Japan to arrive to join a clean-up. View NOAA Debris Handling Guidelines
What are you seeing on the beaches or in the water? Marine debris items or significant accumulations potentially related to the tsunami can be reported to DisasterDebris@noaa.gov with as much information as possible (including location, date and time you found it, and any relevant descriptions).
It is important to remember that not all debris found on U.S. shorelines is from Japan or the tsunami, so please use your discretion when reporting items.
Marine debris is persistent along many U.S. shorelines, so one of the few ways we will know when tsunami debris arrives is if the amount and type changes. NOAA is working to gather baseline data on what's already out there so that we know when that change happens. If you would like to be involved or want NOAA Marine Debris Program shoreline monitoring protocols, please contact MD.firstname.lastname@example.org.
What is NOAA doing to track and prepare for the debris?
Many efforts are underway within Federal agencies to assess and plan for the debris. NOAA is collecting at-sea observation data from aircraft, satellite, and vessels. We are also modeling the debris movement, conducting outreach to communities, and monitoring baseline debris accumulations.
NOAA and other Federal agencies are also working with States and local communities to develop planning guides, which will include response protocols under various scenarios. These plans will include guidance for mitigating marine debris that poses a hazard to navigation, substantial threat of pollution, and adverse impact to public safety or health.
How can mariners find out if there is a hazard nearby?
The Coast Guard notifies mariners of potential hazardous situations as well as navigational disruptions via broadcast Notice to Mariners (BNMs), which can be heard via VHF radio on channel 16 and 22A. Up-to-date Broadcast Notice to Mariners are included in a weekly, published Local Notice to Mariners (LNMs), which can be viewed on the CG NAVCEN website. Anyone can sign up for automatic notification of weekly LNMs (organized by the districts) from this website.
In certain circumstances, the Coast Guard may also mark obstructions to advise vessel traffic of potential hazards to navigation. Mariners can also contact their local Coast Guard sector or Coast Guard station and ask if there are any known navigational hazards in the area.
How does the Coast Guard respond to large marine debris that may impact mariners (both hazard to navigation and otherwise)?
Navigational hazards vary, and the Coast Guard coordinates with federal, state, local and tribal partners on how to respond to each occurrence on a case-by-case basis. In certain circumstances, the Coast Guard may destroy or sink a hazard to navigation at sea, as was the case with a Japanese vessel in the Gulf of Alaska in March 2011. Simple debris that poses no hazard to navigation would be managed by the states and/or local authority (or affected private or federal owners) in accordance with their laws, regulations, and procedures.
How does Coast Guard decide what is a hazard to navigation?
The Coast Guard's definition of a hazard to navigation is: an obstruction, usually sunken, that presents sufficient danger to navigation that requires quick action to mark it, remove it, or redefine a designated waterway to provide for navigational safety.
Since the tsunami, has there been an increase in hazards to navigation?
Marine debris is not new to the shores of the Pacific Northwest, and as an agency, the Coast Guard reports that it has not noticed an increase in the number of potential hazards to navigation.