Typically, when a natural or man-made disaster creates a debris field, the clean up effort has fairly well defined beginning and ending points in time. Not so for the debris field created by the March 11, 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami. Although clean up efforts in many places on land are coming to a close, huge volumes of debris washed out to sea will go largely un-recovered, and troublesome for years to come. Of specific concern, experts estimate there is somewhere between 20-25 million tons of significant debris currently adrift at sea.
To understand the dimensions of a situation involving objects as large as cars, boats and houses, several institutions have turned to Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to predict where the remnants of this disaster will wash ashore. Notably, recent modeling completed by researchers at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, places the first wave of debris on U.S. beaches (Wake Island and Midway Island) later this year.
- For a time-sequenced display of the debris field's advance up until today, click here (Hawaii, lower right corner, Midway Island at roughly 180E)
- For a time-sequenced display of the debris field's projected advance well into the future, click here
- For stills of this last sequence as part on an article by the Mail Online, click here
- For NOAA's Japan debris website, click here
Comment: In 1983, I had the opportunity to walk the shores of Wake Island. If that thought leaves you thinking about a remote speck of land in the middle of the Western Pacific with pristine beaches, you would be wrong. Unfortunately, even ~30 years ago, beaches on the island were already covered as far as the eye could see with "routine maritime pollution" from the intense use of the ocean off the Asian mainland. Items on the beach included fishing buoys, scraps of lumber, gnarled wads of garbage plastic, tennis shoes set adrift from container ships en route to the U.S., and countless other man-made objects with little chance of natural decomposition - an experience few other U.S. beaches have ever seen. However, given the dimensions of the added pollution headed toward Hawaiian and U.S. mainland western shores from the horrible events the Japanese nation experienced last year, we will have to work very hard using every tool - especially geospatial - to keep the disaster in Japan, from becoming a disaster in the USA.