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More debris from monster tsunami expected to hit West Coast

| Tuesday, Dec. 25, 2012, 8:44 p.m.

LOS ANGELES — Volunteers who patrol California beaches for plastic, cigarette butts and other litter will be on the lookout this winter for flotsam from last year's monstrous tsunami off Japan's coast.

Armed with index-size cards, beachcombers will log water bottles, buoys, fishing gear and other possessions that might have sailed across the Pacific to the 1,100-mile shoreline.

The March 2011 disaster washed about 5 million tons of debris into the sea. Most of that sank, leaving an estimated 1 12 million tons afloat. No one knows how much debris — strewn across an area three times the size of the United States — remains adrift.

Tsunami flotsam has already touched the Pacific Northwest and Hawaii this year. The West Coast is bracing for more sightings in the coming months as seasonal winds and coastal currents tend to drive marine wreckage ashore.

Scientists expect the bulk of the debris to end up in Alaska, Washington state, Oregon and British Columbia. Last week, the Coast Guard spotted a large dock that possibly originated in Japan on a wilderness beach in Washington state.

Given recent storm activity, Northern California could experience “scattered and intermittent” episodes, said Peter Murphy, a marine debris expert at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which received a $5 million donation from Japan to track and remove tsunami debris.

Debris from Asia routinely floats to the United States. It's extremely difficult to link something to the Japanese tsunami without a serial number, phone number or other marker.

Of the more than 1,400 tsunami debris sightings reported to NOAA, the agency traced just 17 pieces back to the event, including small fishing boats, soccer balls, a dock and a shipping container housing a Harley-Davidson motorcycle with Japanese license plates. No confirmed tsunami debris so far has reached California.

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