The most powerful earthquake of 2009 was a magnitude 8 earthquake in the South Pacific. It triggered a tsunami – a series of giant waves. Within minutes, scientists were assessing the tsunami’s potential impact throughout the Pacific. That’s according to Vasily Titov, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Center for Tsunami Research.
Vasily Titov: When we know that a tsunami is already generated, we’re trying to forecast tsunami impacts on all coastlines.
Titov said NOAA’s tsunami forecasting system has steadily improved since the devastating tsunami of 2004, which killed almost 200,000 people. He explained that, today, as soon as an earthquake hits the Pacific, scientists collect data from tsunami detectors sitting at the bottom of the ocean. This information gets plugged into computer models.
Vasily Titov: And the models can predict how high the tsunami is going to be all over the ocean.
In the case of the tsunami of 2009, scientists accurately forecast that it would hit the island of Samoa some 15 minutes after the earthquake, with waves up to 20 feet high.
Vasily Titov: The problem is how to give people the forecast in a way they would understand.
The death toll for the 2009 tsunami, which mostly affected Samoa, was under 200 people. Titov believes long-term tsunami education efforts played a central role in keeping that number low; most people on the island knew to get to higher ground right after they felt the quake.
Vasily Titov spoke at the 2009 American Geophysical Union meeting about the role of the tsunami forecasting system during the 2009 tsunami in Samoa.
He told EarthSky that the biggest challenge of forecasting tsunamis is that no one knows when an earthquake will happen. So the forecast relies on a system of instruments designed to measure tsunamis.
Vasily Titov: That’s why we have all these deep ocean tsunameters, or tsunami detectors. These detectors help us forecast wave impacts with high precisions. So when we get this information from tsunameters, we can put them into models, and the models can predict how high the tsunami is going to be all over the ocean.
He said there are about 40 tsunameters sitting at the bottom of Earth’s oceans, placed near the subduction zones where earthquakes are likely to occur. You can see the tsunami forecast models for Samoa here. Titov said the forecast was effectively used to warn people in Hawaii and the West Coast of the US.
Titov added that a tsunami forecast is only useful if combined with education and efficient communication about the tsunami.
Vasily Titov: The warning system is a combination of different components, and the forecast is only one of them. It’s an important one, but it is only one. The communication is very important during the forecast and warning. Training and education are extremely important. Only when you combine all these components can an efficient tsunami system be built.
Learning to love science. As a producer for EarthSky, Lindsay Patterson interviews some of the world's most fascinating scientists. Through EarthSky, her work content is syndicated on some of the world's top media websites, including USAToday.com and Reuters.com. Patterson is also charged with helping to stay in steady communication with the thousands of scientists who contribute to EarthSky's work of making the voice of science heard in a noisy world. She graduated from Colorado College with a degree in creative writing, and a keen interest in all forms of journalism and media.