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Frequently Asked Questions: Debris from Japan Tsunami

NOAA Marine Debris Program

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Many variables affect whether and how long it will take debris from Japan to reach the U.S.

Japan Tsunami debris

Image showing debris accumulated near the coast of Yamada, Japan following the tsunami. The debris has dispersed since this image was taken (Credit: U.S. Navy Pacific fleet).

Since the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, many items have crossed the Pacific and reached U.S. shores. These items include vessels, floating docks, buoys, sports balls, foam pieces, plastics, and even a motorcycle in a shipping container. 

Scientists are relying on computer models to predict where the remaining debris is located today, but models can only assume general direction and timing. Since winds and ocean currents constantly change, and debris often sinks and breaks apart, it is very difficult to predict an exact date and location for the arrival of any debris on U.S. coasts without more information.

Radiation experts agree that it is highly unlikely that any tsunami generated marine debris will hold harmful levels of radiation from the Fukushima nuclear emergency. Some debris in West Coast states and Hawaii has been tested by the states, including items known to be from the tsunami, and no radioactive contamination above normal was found. 

NOAA is leading efforts with federal, state, and local partners to collect data, assess the debris, and reduce possible impacts to our natural resources and coastal communities.