Spy Satellites Used In Search For Tsunami Debris

May 18, 2012

Another piece of confirmed tsunami debris – part of a restaurant sign – has washed ashore in Alaska. But marine scientists can’t say how much other Japanese disaster debris is trailing behind. This problem surfaced at a U.S. Senate hearing Thursday. Researchers are now getting some access to spy satellite imagery.

Last year’s enormous tsunami washed millions of tons of debris out to sea from Japan. Within the following month, the debris field dispersed so much that it could no longer be tracked by conventional satellites. In recent weeks though, requests to the Defense Department have yielded spy satellite imagery with a resolution down to one meter. Carey Morishige with NOAA’s Marine Debris Program says that’s created a new challenge: the ocean is vast.

“We’ve looked through images that we’ve gotten back for several areas of the North Pacific ocean and as of yet, they have not seen any marine debris,” Morishige says.

So does that mean it’s not out there, that this it's overblown?

“I’m not sure we can definitively say that. It doesn’t mean it’s not out there,” Morishige says.

In testimony to Congress Thursday, a NOAA deputy administrator said the agency may also use a surveillance drone to scan for debris.

Separately, the federal government is setting up a network of coastal monitoring sites along the West Coast to detect when and where Japanese tsunami debris makes landfall.

In Washington state, NOAA can piggyback on pre-existing beach survey sites monitored by the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary. In Oregon, the federal science agency has reached out to Oregon State University for help to systematically check the shore. NOAA Marine Debris Coordinator Peter Murphy says British Columbia is also engaged. In an email, Murphy wrote that both the BC Ministry of the Environment and a Surfrider chapter in BC have agreed to use NOAA protocols for data collection.

Copyright 2012 Northwest News Network