SEATTLE, WASHINGTON - Debris from Japan's 2011 tsunami will continue to litter the North American coastline over the next three years, with everything from refrigerators to lumber to sports balls still floating offshore in the Pacific, an expert said Tuesday.
About 1 million tons of debris was still lingering in the Pacific Ocean four years after a magnitude-9.0 earthquake, the most powerful ever recorded in Japan, set off a series of massive tsunami waves that devastated a wide swath of Honshu's Pacific coastline and killed nearly 20,000 people.
It also damaged the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, leading to a series of explosions and meltdowns in the world's worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl 25 years earlier.
The Oregon Sea Grant, a program at Oregon State University funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has been working with researchers at Japan's Tottori University to monitor tsunami debris.
An estimated 5 million tons of wreckage — cars, building materials, boats, docks and more — washed into the Pacific, and about 70 percent sank quickly to the ocean floor, experts in the United States and Japan said.
But items with buoyancy eventually caught the Pacific Ocean's currents and have since lodged as close as 25 miles (40 kilometers) off the North American coast, covering an area from California to Alaska, said Sam Chan, an aquatic invasive species expert at Oregon Sea Grant.
"When it comes into our Pacific shores in North America, it [the debris] tends to stay offshore for months and sometimes a year," he said. "It's not until we actually end up with local storm events or changes in the season that debris comes ashore."
Over the past year, warmer temperatures and a lack of major storms have kept most of the refuse from washing up on land, but wave patterns and other oceanic conditions are likely to send more items headed to West Coast beaches this summer, he said.
Last summer, 26 Japanese boats floated ashore in Oregon, Washington state and Canada's British Columbia, Chan said.
In 2012, a 66-foot dock (20 meters) that had been ripped from its moorings in Japan floated up on a beach north of Newport, Oregon, southwest of Portland.
The Japanese team has sent out about 70 battery-operated tracking devices that float at different heights to simulate different kinds of debris in order to understand where in the Pacific the refuse has clustered.