Dynamics and early post-tsunami evolution of floating marine debris near Fukushima Daiichi


The devastating tsunami triggered by the Tōhoku-Oki earthquake of 11 March 2011 caused a crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station where it overtopped the seawall defences. On retreating, the tsunami carried loose debris and wreckage seaward and marshalled buoyant material into extensive plumes. Widespread concern over the fate of these and numerous other Tōhoku tsunami depositions prompted attempts to simulate debris dispersion throughout the wider Pacific. However, the effects of locally perturbed wind and wave fields, active Langmuir circulation and current-induced attrition determine a complex and poorly understood morphology for large floating agglomerations. Here we show that the early post-tsunami evolution of marine-debris plumes near Fukushima Daiichi was also shaped by near-surface wind modifications that took place above relatively calm (lower surface roughness) waters covered by surface films derived from oil and other contaminants. High-spatial-resolution satellite tracking reveals faster-than-expected floating-debris motions and invigorated plume evolution within these regions, while numerical modelling of turbulent air flow over the low-drag, film-covered surface predicts typically metre-per-second wind strengthening at centimetric heights, sufficient to explain the observed debris-speed increases. Wind restructuring probably stimulates the dispersion of flotsam from both biological and anthropogenic sources throughout a global ocean of highly variable surface roughness.

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Figure 1: Origin, structure and early motion of flotsam observed within the Fukushima Daiichi coastal zone following the 11 March 2011 tsunami.
Figure 2: Floating debris slows on entering calmer regions of low surface roughness then speeds partially recover as wind restructuring strengthens.
Figure 3: Debris rafts decay through both lateral and frontal material release within complex regimes influenced by currents, waves and restructured winds.


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The authors acknowledge support from Y. Ishikawa, T. Kitano, Y. Miyazawa and S. Varlamov. J.P.M. acknowledges research support from the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS), Kakenhi grant no. 25610140 and wishes to express gratitude to the School of Ocean Sciences and the Library and Information Services of the University of Bangor, Wales.

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J.P.M. conceived and led the project, analysed the satellite imagery, provided theoretical input and wrote the paper. L.O. developed theoretical models of the impact of horizontally varying surface roughness on near-surface wind velocity profiles. Y.Y. used the large eddy simulation (LES) technique to quantify debris-plume motions in the early post-tsunami phase. S.K. developed an LES-based laboratory-flow analogue of water motion around a floating debris raft to shed light on the process of lateral decay. H.T. derived realistic Stokes drift motion contributions based on an advanced third-generation wave model (WAVEWATCH III). All authors contributed to the analysis of the results and the development of the article.

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Correspondence to John Philip Matthews.

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Matthews, J., Ostrovsky, L., Yoshikawa, Y. et al. Dynamics and early post-tsunami evolution of floating marine debris near Fukushima Daiichi. Nature Geosci 10, 598–603 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo2975

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