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Vasily Titov
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Vasily Titov

30 Years and Counting in Tsunami Research

By: Bonnie Myers, NOAA Research Office of Communications

Novosibirsk, Russia, situated in the middle of the largest country in the world with no ocean or coastline in sight, may not be the first place that comes to mind when you think of tsunamis. However, for tsunami modeler, Dr. Vasily Titov, Novosibirsk was the birthplace of his career in tsunami research.

Dr. Vasily Titov Discussing DART buoy system.

Dr. Vasily Titov Discussing DART buoy system.

The DART® buoy system, Deep Ocean Assessment of Tsunami, is a real-time tsunami monitoring system, developed at NOAA's Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory. The DART buoys are situated in the ocean in many parts of the world and provide essential data for tsunami forecasting. Credit: NOAA

For 30 years, Titov, who is the Director of NOAA Center for Tsunami Research at NOAA’s Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle, WA, has applied his theoretical knowledge of mathematics gained at Novosibirsk State University to the “real, exotic, and complicated” field of tsunami research. In fact, Titov continues to work on a version of the same computer model and equation he started in 1984 to model tsunami wave height and flooding today. 

“The application for real-time tsunami simulations was once nothing more than a dream. The fact is the model we are using in operations now is exactly the one that I started writing on a clean sheet of paper back in 1984,” Titov said.

Just like Titov’s career, progressing from researching tsunamis in Russia in 1984 to getting his Ph.D. at the University of Southern California over eight years later, many milestones mark the evolution of tsunami research. One of these milestones is the tragic Indian Ocean Tsunami, also known as the Boxing Day Tsunami, on December 26, 2004 that was the deadliest tsunami in recorded history.

Titov remembers the events leading up to this tsunami well and recalls it was the first time “real-time tsunami forecasting with models became an important concept.”

2005 Post-tsunami Survey in Sumatra, Indonesia

2005 Post-tsunami Survey in Sumatra, Indonesia

Dr. Vasily Titov from NOAA's Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory during a post-tsunami survey following the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia. Courtesy of Vasily Titov

On December 25, 2004, Titov was unintentionally alone for the holiday in Seattle, and as most scientists would do, he decided to do some work. After learning of the earthquake event that would cause the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, he remembers that there were few clues to suggest the resulting tsunami would be as catastrophic as it was. Earthquakes in the ocean cause tsunamis and are difficult to measure due to their complexity, making early predictions of tsunamis very difficult.

Titov decided to model the potential waves created by this earthquake as aftershocks started to occur thousands of miles from the earthquake’s epicenter. As he posted the model to a bulletin board for tsunami scientists on December 26, 2004, the first devastating news was coming in about the loss of life and the disastrous scale of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami.

The Indian Ocean Tsunami was not the only event that propelled tsunami research into the forefront of the public’s minds; however, according to Titov, it was a “game-changer” in tsunami research.

Since this event, Titov has experienced several breakthroughs in accurately predicting tsunami wave height, arrival time, and flooding potential with the MOST (The Method of Splitting Tsunami) model. The MOST model, which was created by Titov and Costas Synolakis of the University of Southern California, uses data from the DART® buoy system to forecast tsunamis in real-time, helping emergency managers provide valuable information to the public with the goal of saving lives.

1996 Post-tsunami Survey in Peru

1996 Post-tsunami Survey in Peru

Dr. Vasily Titov on site in Peru surveying water levels and other habitat following a tsunami. Courtesy of Vasily Titov, NOAA's Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory.

“Tsunamis are a rare event, creating an additional challenge to the accuracy of the warning systems,” Titov said.  The real tsunami events are what provide the data needed to ensure the accuracy and utility of the models.

For this reason, Titov has travelled the world collecting data following tsunamis in Sumatra, Kuril Islands, South America, Japan, and many more. Using this data and advancements in supercomputers, he is able to help improve operational tsunami models to increase warning times and predictions of flooding.

However, accurate data and models are only part of the battle. Not only do tsunami forecasters and emergency managers need accurate forecasts, but communities must be aware of the potentially devastating effects of tsunamis and ready to act when an event occurs.

 “I guess the silver lining from the tsunami tragedies [like the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami] is there is a greater emphasis on tsunami education,” which is key to increasing community preparedness for future events.

1994 Survey in the Phillipines

1994 Survey in the Phillipines

Dr. Vasily Titov, Director of NOAA's Tsunami Research Center located at the Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory, collecting essential post-tsunami data on the Mendoro Island in the Philippines in 1994. Courtesy of Vasily Titov

For Titov, the future of tsunami research lies in improving rapid near-field tsunami detection and forecasts and ensuring the public has the best warning products available to respond properly to these events. Even though he has been researching tsunamis for 30 years, Titov remains as eager as he was in 1984 to be at the forefront of future advancements in real-time tsunami prediction.

Dr. Vasily Titov has a Ph.D. in Coastal and Ocean Engineering from the University of Southern California and an M.S. in Mathematics from Novosibirsk State University. He has been with NOAA’s Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory since 1997 as a senior tsunami modeler and is now Director of the NOAA Tsunami Research Center. Titov was also a speaker at the 5th Installment of NOAA Science Days on “Research to Reduce Disasters and Enhance Resilience.” Read more about research advancements since the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami.


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