By AUDREY McAVOY
HONOLULU - Lumber, boats and other debris ripped from Japanese coastal towns by tsunamis last year have spread across some 3,000 miles of the North Pacific, where they could wash ashore on remote islands north of Hawaii this winter.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimated the first bits of tsunami debris will make landfall soon at small atolls northwest of the main Hawaiian Islands.
NOAA's tsunami marine debris coordinator, Ruth Yender, told an online news conference Tuesday that agency workers looking for the debris were boarding Coast Guard flights that regularly patrol the archipelago.
NOAA also asked scientists stationed at Midway and other atolls to look for the debris.
Yender said that so far, no debris confirmed to be from the tsunamis has landed on American shores, including large buoys suspected to be from Japanese oyster farms found in Alaska late last year.
The buoys would have had to travel faster than currents to get to Alaska at that time if they were set loose by the March 11 tsunamis.
Similar buoys have also washed ashore in Alaska and the U.S. West Coast before the tsunami, she said.
Nikolai Maximenko, a University of Hawaii researcher and ocean currents expert, said the dispersion of the debris makes it more difficult to track but no less hazardous.
"In many cases it's not density that matters, it's total amount," he said. "For example, if there's a current flowing around Midway island, that island would collect debris like a trawl moving across the ocean. It will collect all the debris on its way."
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, Maximenko said.
That would only be a portion of the 20 million to 25 million tons of debris the tsunamis generated altogether, including what was left on land.