Drifters Could Monitor Ocean Radiation From Japan

Drifters Could Monitor Ocean Radiation From Japan

The ocean-going floats would track radioactive material as it approaches Hawaii and the U.S. West Coast.

By Eric Niiler
Thu Apr 14, 2011 08:34 AM ET

  • Radioactive debris from Japan could reach the U.S. West Coast in three years.
  • Scientists want to deploy drifters to monitor radiation and debris in the ocean from Japan’s plant.
  • Currently there is no effective way to monitor the radiation, say researchers.

An aerial view shows streams of oil and debris leaking out into the Pacific Ocean from Japan on March 14, 2011. Click to enlarge this image.
Commander, Naval Forces Japan (CNFJ)

Marine scientists say they are concerned about radiation spewing from the crippled Japanese nuclear plant even though they expect it will take at least two years for radioactive material to reach Hawaii, perhaps three to hit the West Coast.

They want to drop a fleet of 60 ocean-going drifters into the debris field as a kind of early-warning system to get a better idea of how much radiation has entered the Pacific Ocean and where it’s going.

“Currently, we are blind,” said Nikolai Maximenko, a physical oceanographer at the University of Hawaii’s International Pacific Research Center. “We do not even know where the main plume of floating debris and all those houses (from the Japanese coast) are. We are pulling together an emergency project to put drifters into those patches of floating debris to know where they are.”

Maximenko and colleagues at several U.S. institutions say they need to act quickly and are proposing to drop the drifters next month from C-130 aircraft operated by the U.S. Coast Guard and Japanese research ship later this summer. The researchers say that satellite tracking won’t work because the pieces of debris on the surface are too small, and that using existing models of Pacific Ocean circulation won’t give an accurate enough picture of where the plume is headed.

In addition to warning communities across the Pacific, the project would help make better short-term predictions for people living along the Japanese coast, according to Luca Centurioni, physical oceanographer at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif., and co-principal investigator on the project.

“The general ocean circulation generally well understood, but if you want to make a shorter prediction, you need models to help you out,” Centurioni said. 

The proposal would extend the reach of the Global Drifter Program, which has some 900 instruments taking a variety of measurements across the world’s oceans.

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