Published February 15, 2012
Wrecked cars, portions of homes, boats, furniture and more -- all swept up by the destructive, magnitude 9.0 earthquake that struck off the coast of Japan 11 months ago -- are on a slow-motion collision course with California.
But no one's tracking the debris, Jim Churnside, a physicist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency's (NOAA) Marine Debris Program, told FoxNews.com.
"It would be really nice, but it’s really difficult," Churnside expained.
The wreckage from the March 11, 2011, disaster could include virtually anything that floats, according to oceanographer and beachcomber Curtis Ebbesmeyer -- and that includes portions of houses, boats, ships, furniture, cars and even human remains.
Independent models constructed by the NOAA and the University of Hawaii show a vast, loose debris field drifting inexorably toward Hawaii, California and Washington -- the first fishing buoys reached the West Coast in mid December, Ebbesmeyer wrote in his "Beachcombers Alert" newsletter. The flotsam is expected to increase, with the bulk of the debris hitting some time in 2014.
"I would not be surprised to see some fishing vessels by April, and the main mass of debris start arriving a year from this March," Ebbesmeyer told FoxNews.com.
Beyond that, it's hard to say exactly how big the debris is -- or even where the majority of it is.
"After the tsunami, the debris was closely clumped together," Churnside told FoxNews.com. "After storms and over time, those [clumps] kind of get broken up. I don’t think there’s going to be much that’s visible from satellites right now."
High resolution satellite cameras could pick up the scattered remains -- the houses and cars, the ruined fishing boats and oil drums. But setting such a camera to exhaustively scan the vastness of the Pacific Ocean would be tedious and expensive, he noted.
"There’s no good efficient way to do it," Churnside said, "just because it’s spread out by now over such a huge area."
Floating debris travels at about 7 mph, Ebbesmeyer said, but it can move as much as 20 mph if it has a large area exposed to the wind, according to a report in the Associated Press. That said, Churnside expects models of the debris path from last summer are probably accurate.
The debris is not expected to be radioactive. Carey Morishige, the Pacific Islands Regional Coordinator for the NOAA Marine Debris Program, told science blog Earthsky.org that radioactivity is probably not an issue, since the tsunami carried most of the debris seaward before the failure of Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor.
"All debris should be treated with a great reverence and respect," Ebbesmeyer told the AP.
Churnside plans to revisit his models of the enormous debris field next month, one year after the devasting event.