U.S. Water News Online
SEATTLE -- Hours after an earthquake-driven tidal wave
slammed into coastlines from Asia to Africa, a 1,000-mile-long
tsunami sped across Vasily Titov's computer screen.
The re-creation is part of research here to develop a new
forecasting system to better protect coastal communities from
disasters like the magnitude 9.0 earthquake that struck near
Indonesia. The quake generated tsunamis that killed more than 120,000
people across a dozen countries.
"Our goal is to have results (a tsunami prediction) in 15 minutes
or less" after an earthquake, said Titov, a mathematician and
computer modeler on an elite team of tsunami researchers at the
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Pacific Marine
Environmental Laboratory here.
The lab pioneered the first real-time early warning system for
tsunamis in the Pacific Ocean, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer
reported. It's now part of an international effort to accurately and
rapidly forecast the path of massive waves that follow a major
Titov's digitized tsunami showed the wall of water traveling about
500 mph westward from Sumatra toward Sri Lanka and India. The results
aren't exact, he said, but a rapid forecast and alert system based on
the seismic and bathymetric (sea floor topography) data could have
The forecasting system could be tested within a year. But experts
believe many could have been saved had the Indian Ocean been
outfitted with the lab's deep-sea tsunameters, now deployed mostly in
the northern Pacific Ocean.
"Some locations would have had two hours to warn and evacuate
people," said Dr. Frank Gonzalez, who heads the research team.
A tsunameter is a sophisticated pressure gauge placed on the ocean
floor that sends signals to a surface buoy that radios information to
a satellite. Scientists receive the data and determine whether a
warning is appropriate.
In the early 1990s, scientists recognized the Pacific Northwest
could be at risk from an earthquake like the one that struck off the
coast of Sumatra.
Washington began developing a tsunami warning and evacuation
system, primarily for high-risk communities along the Pacific coast.
Gonzalez' team also has worked with state officials to map the
regions most likely to be affected by a tsunami. Some areas have
evacuation drills, with sirens and escape routes posted. Schools also
educate children about the risk.
In 2001, Gonzalez and Dr. Eddie Bernard, director of the NOAA lab
and an internationally recognized leader in tsunami research,
deployed their first deep-ocean tsunami detector.
Bernard said a goal is to eliminate false alarms like in 1986,
when Hawaii lost some $40 million because of an alert for a tsunami
that never came ashore.
A tsunami warning here in 1994 also prompted unnecessary
evacuations along the Pacific coast, said Mark Clemens, spokesman for
the Washington State Emergency Management Division.
"Things are much more predictable now," he said.
Today there are six tsunameters in the Pacific Ocean, Bernard
said, calling it the bare minimum for adequate warning.
"We probably need more like 20," he said, noting failure of one
instrument could create a serious delay in alerting communities of an
The NOAA lab wants to expand the deep-sea tsunameter network and
add its latest computer modeling to improve the speed and accuracy of
the tsunami warning system.
"We're showing that this can be done," Gonzalez said.
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