Scientists can now model how a tsunami will strike a coast – even half a world away. That’s according to Eddie Bernard, director of the Pacific Marine Environmental laboratory in Seattle. He told us:
Most natural hazards are confined to a fairly small area. A tsunami’s unique in that not only does it do damage locally, but then it exports its damage.
He spoke to EarthSky about using the tsunami forecasting system to track the tsunami that struck Chile in February in 2010, after a local magnitude 8.8 earthquake. Dr. Bernard said the after the tsunami hit Chile, it traveled throughout the Pacific at jet-speed, about 500 mph in the open ocean.
He said scientists at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii were able to determine that the tsunami didn’t pose a danger to U.S. shores, 11 hours away. Dr. Bernard said experts learned this as they measured the tsunami wave, as it moved away from Chile.
It arrived at the location of the first instrumented deep ocean buoy about three hours after the tsunami was generated. The forecasts were very accurate and showed that we would indeed experience strong currents along coastal areas, [of Hawaii and the western U.S.] but there would be little or minor flooding.
Bernard said a tsunami reached Hawaii about 11 hours after the initial quake (and tsunami) in Chile. He said that scientists weren’t able to forecast the tsunami in Chile because it was too close in proximity to the earthquake itself. Bernard told EarthSky that the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 in which over 200,000 lost their lives was unusual in its widespread devastation. Still, he said, tsuamis are to be taken seriously, especially in the Pacific region.
If you look at Pacific Ocean, the perimeter is classically called the ‘ring of fire.’ That’s where a lot of earthquakes and volcanoes occur. So we typically place a sensor such that we can pick up a tsunami within this ring of fire area within a certain amount of time, ideally one hour.
Bernard added that a combination and data analysis has made tsunami detection – after that first hour – extremely accurate. He said that not only does good prediction enable people to increasingly trust NOAA’s Tsunami Warning System, it also saves governments lots of money.
Our thanks today to NOAA Pacific Services Center – linking culture, science, and people to build resilient Pacific Island communities.
Beth Lebwohl researches, writes and helps produce science content in audio and video formats for EarthSky. She is one of the authors on EarthSky.org, a script-writer for our podcasts, and helps host our English science podcasts in 90-second, 8-minute and 22-minute formats. Beth came to EarthSky in 2006 from the American Museum of Natural History's Department of Astrophysics, where she was surrounded by some of the greatest telescope-building, equation-wielding, code-writing physicists of our time. And they made her think . . . this science thing . . . it's pretty cool.