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NOAA debunks myth of massive chunk of debris headed for West Coast

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has been doing some serious myth-busting after news reports claimed a massive island of debris from the 2011 Japan tsunami was headed for the West Coast.

There is no floating mass of debris, the agency says.

The disaster swept millions of tons of material out to sea. While some has washed up on the West Coast and Hawaii, what remains afloat is widely scattered across the Pacific.

The source of alarm was a map NOAA posted online without fanfare Sept. 23. The agency has updated the graphic every month or two since developing a debris-tracking computer model shortly after the tsunami.

The latest version shows a blob-shaped zone more than 1,000 miles wide northeast of Hawaii, identifying it as the region with the highest concentration of debris.

Last week, media outlets across the world took notice, warning of a floating island of debris the size of Texas and a “toxic monster” headed for the West Coast.

“This kind of caught fire,” said Keeley Belva, a NOAA spokeswoman who spent a full day last week on the phone clearing up misperceptions about the loosely scattered debris.

A post on the agency’s marine debris blog laid out the reality: “Here’s the bottom line: There is no solid mass of debris from Japan heading to the United States.”

The post added that the debris is “spread out so much that you could fly a plane over the Pacific Ocean and not see any debris since it is spread over a huge area, and most of the debris is small, hard-to-see objects.”

“There’s not an island, but a higher concentration of marine debris versus the rest of the North Pacific,” Belva said.

Marine debris is one consequence of the magnitude 9.0 earthquake that struck off the coast of Japan on March 11, 2011. The quake triggered tsunami waves more than 100 feet high, killed more than 16,000 people and set adrift between 1 million and 2 million tons of debris. The material is not radioactive because it was dragged to sea before the nuclear crisis at Fukushima.

Scientists have been tracking that material’s journey across the Pacific Ocean since, as fuel tanks, volleyballs and fishing vessels have drifted for thousands of miles and appeared on U.S. shores.

NOAA has collected close to 2,000 sightings of tsunami debris from the West Coast and the Hawaiian Islands, and traced 35 pieces back to the tsunami.

Among the confirmed items: a 66-foot floating dock that washed up near Newport, Ore.; a derelict fishing boat found near Crescent City, Calif.; and a soccer ball with Japanese writing discovered on a remote Alaskan island and traced to a 16-year-old boy in Japan.

More debris could still reach land.


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