Tsunami debris reaches halfway across Pacific

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HONOLULU (AP) - Lumber, boats and other debris ripped from Japanese coastal towns by tsunamis last year have spread across some 3,000 miles to areas halfway across the North Pacific, and could wash ashore on remote islands north of Hawaii any day now.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates the first bits of tsunami debris will land at small atolls northwest of the main Hawaiian Islands this winter.

NOAA’s tsunami marine debris coordinator, Ruth Yender, told an online news conference Tuesday that agency workers looking for the debris are boarding Coast Guard flights that regularly patrol the archipelago.

NOAA is also asking scientists stationed at Midway and other atolls to look for it.

Yender says so far no debris confirmed to be from the tsunamis has landed on U.S. shores.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP’s earlier story is below.

Tsunamis generated by the magnitude-9 earthquake in Japan last March dragged 3 million to 4 million tons of debris into the ocean after tearing up Japanese harbors and homes.

Scientists believe ocean currents are carrying some of the lumber, refrigerators, fishing boats and other objects across the Pacific toward the United States.

One to 5 percent of the 1 million to 2 million tons of debris still in the ocean may reach Hawaii, Alaska, Oregon and Washington and British Columbia, said University of Hawaii senior researcher and ocean current expert Nikolai Maximenko.

That’s only a portion of the 20 million to 25 million tons of debris the tsunamis generated altogether, including what was left on land.

Maximenko plans to discuss Tuesday at a news conference his latest estimates for where the debris is and when it may wash ashore. Last year, his team estimated debris could arrive in Hawaii in early 2013.

Some debris appears to have already arrived in the U.S., like a half-dozen large buoys suspected to be from Japanese oyster farms found in Alaska late last year.

Nicholas Mallos, conservation biologist and marine debris specialist for the Ocean Conservancy, said many of the objects are expected to be from Japan’s fishing industry. The conservancy is hosting the news conference.

Fishing gear could harm wildlife, such as endangered Hawaiian monk seals, if it washes up on coral reefs or beaches.

“The major question is how much of that material has sank since last year, and how much of that remains afloat or still in the water column,” Mallos said.

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