U.S. Water News Online
EWA BEACH, Hawaii -- Scientists have tested the Pacific
Ocean's tsunami-warning system, sending alarms about imaginary
earthquakes to more than 30 countries at risk for another disaster
like the one that swept the Indian Ocean in 2004.
The warning system has been in place since 1965, but the exercise
was its first extensive test since the Asian tsunami that left at
least 216,000 people dead or missing, sparking international calls
Several real earthquakes hit the region during the exercise. The
largest, centered about 710 miles northeast of Auckland, New Zealand,
generated a minor local tsunami that did not affect any populated
areas, New Zealand national civil defense controller Mike O'Leary
At the start of the test, a beeping sound filled the Pacific
Tsunami Warning Center in Ewa Beach, signaling a mock magnitude 9.2
earthquake off the coast of Chile. Within 10 minutes, warnings
clearly labeled as part of the exercise went out from the Hawaii
facility, as well as the Alaska Tsunami Warning Center near
It was the first of nine bulletins issued throughout the day,
warning of a fictitious wave that grew to as big as 30 feet. Tsunamis
generally travel at the speed of a commercial jet, but the center
increased the speed four times, for the drill to finish in six hours.
The noticeable difference between the exercise and a real event
was that the phones in Hawaii were silent. Normally, as soon as
warnings are issued, the center is flooded with calls from
governments and media, while scientists try to answer questions and
monitor seismic activity.
Governments were to report back on how efficiently they received
the warnings, which are relayed through nearly a dozen circuits,
including weather services, e-mails and faxes. Few were reporting
The Hawaii center called some of the nations individually to
verify they received the alerts. The bulletins were also sent to many
other countries that were not participating.
Some evacuations were planned during the drill in American Samoa,
Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines. But most participating
countries were conducting only mock responses.
Several hours before the start of the drill, a real 7.4-magnitude
earthquake rocked New Zealand, and a 6.8-magnitude quake later hit
western Indonesia. No damage or injuries were reported.
Scientists in Hawaii went ahead with the drill because no tsunami
warning had to be issued for either quake.
In Tonga, officials were bombarded with questions as a quake hit
during the tsunami test, said Mali'u Takai, director of the nation's
Charles McCreery, director of the Hawaii-based Tsunami Warning
Center, said the exercise was a success even before it started
because it attracted interest from so many nations. "That's something
we have never seen before," McCreery said.
In Melbourne, Australia, Chris Ryan of the National Meteorological
and Oceanographic Centre said that except for some wrong numbers and
the real earthquakes, "it all seems to have gone as planned."
Prior to the Asian disaster, worldwide interest in tsunami
warnings had waned in the four decades since the last major
"So this was a golden opportunity to try and bring that level of
preparedness back up," McCreery said.
The Indian Ocean tsunami in December 2004 prompted improvements in
the Pacific warning system. Other countries, including Indonesia and
nations in the Caribbean, are now spending millions of dollars to
establish their own warning centers modeled after the Hawaii
Tsunami center spokesman Brian Yanagi said that the center detects
earthquakes every day, but that not all of them cause tsunamis.
"It's not like a hurricane where you can see what's going on
through satellite," he said. "This is a very different animal."
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