October 15, 2018

Is the World Ready for the Next Big Tsunami?

“The twin earthquake-tsunami disaster in Indonesia late last week raised new questions about how prepared the global system is to react to future events. Since the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami devastated countries throughout the region, a global system of regional and national centers has sprung up to react to the first tremors along the ocean floor. The response of individual countries now largely relies on a densely interconnected system of seismological data detection centers and high-tech ocean buoys. The regional data analysis and dissemination systems in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, in the Northeast Atlantic, Mediterranean, and Caribbean provide one strong example of international cooperation. “Tsunami forecasting is an excellent example of how science, diplomacy, and [international relations] come together for common good and to save lives,” said Christa von Hillebrandt-Andrade, the manager of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and National Weather Service’s Caribbean Tsunami Warning Program in Mayagüez, Puerto Rico. When a major wave propagates, as Harry Yeh, a professor of engineering at Oregon State University, put it, “it’s not the one country’s business.” The four regional tsunami warning and mitigation systems operate under the guidance of UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission.

When an earthquake of large magnitude is detected in the ocean, seismic information is transmitted to regional tsunami warning centers, including the U.S. Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii. This sets off an initial phase of a tsunami warning, or a preliminary forecast. As the tsunami begins to travel, the waves activate deep-ocean assessment and reporting of tsunami (DART) systems consisting of a pressure recorder on the ocean floor and a surface buoy, communicating in real time. These sensors detect wave heights and communicate via satellite, allowing regional centers to estimate time of arrival and continue to update the tsunami warnings. These buoys were originally developed by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, which owns and manages 39 of the sensors in the global array. More than 30 are deployed in the Pacific, the region of highest risk.”

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