Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Fidley Watch: Eastern Drift

From Internet news provider OurAmazingPlanet.com comes an update on the debris washed out to sea by the March Japanese tsunami: It’s headed our way.

After months of floating across the Pacific Ocean, debris from the devastating tsunami that hit Japan on March 11 has turned up exactly where scientists predicted it would, 3,000 miles from Japan. The earthquake and ensuing tsunami washed millions of tons of debris into the Pacific. 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 ranges from pieces of fishing vessels to TV sets.

For nearly six months, the scientists were relying on a 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. In September, a Russian sailing ship, the STS Pallada, found an array of unmistakable tsunami debris on its homeward voyage from Honolulu to Vladivostok.

The tall ship Pallada is a 354-foot, steel-hulled training ship built in 1989 and operated by the Navigation Institute of Dalrybvtuz (the Russian Far Eastern State Fisheries University). Used as a seamanship training ship to train cadets for the Russian merchant fleet, the Pallada carries more than a hundred cadets and is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the fastest sailing ship in the world, capable of reaching speeds in excess of 18 knots.

Pallada was on the last leg of a US West Coast tour and headed back home when she encountered the debris field coming the other way. Soon after passing Midway Islands on September 22nd, crewmembers aboard the Pallada spotted a surprising number of floating items including a TV set, a refrigerator and other home appliances, as well as a 22-foot fiberglass fishing boat from the area of Japan hardest hit by the tsunami.

For the next five days, according to Natalia Borodina, information and education mate of the Pallada, the crew sighted “every day things like wooden boards, plastic bottles, buoys from fishing nets (small and big ones), an object resembling a wash basin, drums, boots, other wastes. All these objects are floating by the ship.”

The exact location of some of the now widely scattered debris allows scientists to make more accurate projections about where the debris might go and when it might arrive. 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.

Good news from Ms. Borodina for future recipients of the tsunami trash: The radioactivity level of the debris is normal. “We’ve measured it with the Geiger counter,” she says.

Chris Philips, Managing Editor