Debris from last year’s Japan tsunami is still making its way across the Pacific, drifting toward the California coast, and researchers are looking for “citizen scientists” to help track and catalog it. And yes, there’s an app for that.

Click here to see NOAA's latest geographical distribution modeling for the debris from the Japan tsunami.

It’s called “Coastbuster,” and it enables smartphone users to report potential remnants from the March, 2011 tsunami, as they arrive.

“And then those data are used to either get the resources to clean it up or identify things like invasive species, so they can be addressed immediately,” says Kate Moran of Ocean Networks Canada, a research consortium that she runs out of British Columbia’s University of Victoria.

Spotting debris on the beach is one thing. Knowing what to look for is another. Moran is counting on habitual walkers, joggers and beachcombers to spot unusual items. “People who normally walk the beaches kind of know what’s there and what’s new,” Moran told me during a recent meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco. “I have confidence in our citizen scientists to kind of do a good job,” she told me, punctuating the thought with a chuckle.

In case “kind of” isn’t sufficient, Moran says a team of experts will sift through the uploads and sort out likely tsunami debris from random flotsam.

Estimates have varied as to when the main body of debris is expected to arrive. The latest calculations appear to indicate it will hit the west coast any time from now through 2013. Some fragments have already been spotted, notably a 165-ton concrete dock that hit the beach along the Oregon coast last June.

The Android version of the spotters’ app is already out, and Moran says the iPhone version is expected to hit iTunes this week.

Reporting Tsunami Debris by Smartphone as it Drifts Toward California 10 December,2012Craig Miller


Craig Miller

Craig is KQED’s science editor, specializing in weather, climate, water & energy issues, with a little seismology thrown in just to shake things up. Prior to his current position, he launched and led the station’s award-winning multimedia project, Climate Watch. Craig is also an accomplished writer/producer of television documentaries, with a focus on natural resource issues.

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