JUNEAU, Alaska -- Two years ago, the yellow buoy was hanging as part of a restaurant sign in the coastal community of Minamisanriku in northern Japan when an earthquake triggered a tsunami and washed it -- and much more -- out to sea.
About a year later, the buoy was found more than 3,000 miles away on a remote Alaskan island, discovered by an avid beachcomber who, through sheer coincidence, was later able to find the owner, who had lost her home and business. Hundreds of similar buoys have been found on beaches along the West Coast, part of a combination of the everyday trash that has plagued coastal areas for years and debris washed away by the March 11, 2011, disaster.
Distinguishing between the two is difficult. Just 21 items from among the more than 1,500 reports of possible tsunami debris have been firmly traced back to the tsunami, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The confirmed items include several derelict vessels, including a small boat found in waters off Hawaii, large docks that have washed ashore in Washington state and Oregon and a motorcycle that washed ashore off the coast of British Columbia.
These are items that tend to have unique markings -- names of people and places, registration numbers or other identifying information. The agency lists scores of other items along the West Coast and across the Pacific Ocean as potentially linked to the catastrophe.
The Japanese government estimated 1.5 million tons of debris was floating in the ocean immediately after the disaster, which devastated a long stretch of Japan's northeastern coast and killed thousands of people. But it's not clear how much is still out there or what might reach U.S. shores. NOAA has said the debris is spread over an area roughly three times the size of the contiguous United States, and that beachgoers may notice an increase in debris "over many years," in addition to what normally washes up.