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Shock of Indian Ocean tsunami fuels decade of research progress
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/ Categories: Research Headlines, 2014

Shock of Indian Ocean tsunami fuels decade of research progress

New generation of warning products increase tsunami preparedness

Nearly 10 years ago, the world woke the day after Christmas to news of the most deadly tsunami in recorded history. Triggered by an underwater earthquake, the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 26, 2004, took the lives of nearly 240,000 unwarned people in four hours and displaced 1.7 million people in over 14 countries.

While NOAA had created a tsunami warning system for the United States and had begun cooperating with Pacific nations as part of a Pacific-wide system after the 1960 Chilean tsunami, there was no warning system for the vast populations around the Indian Ocean.

“This was a classic post-disaster wake-up call,” said Eddie Bernard, then director of NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle where NOAA tsunami research is based. “We realized that the tools we were working on could make a difference.”

Within days of the Indian Ocean tsunami, NOAA’s then administrator, Conrad Lautenbacher, spoke before the National Press Club along with other federal scientists about the need for a global tsunami warning system. After decades of research, NOAA scientists had the technology in hand and Congress and the President acted swiftly to support an international effort to build a global tsunami warning system and complete a more robust system to protect U.S. coastlines. Bipartisan legislation, the Tsunami Warning and Education Act, was introduced, passed by Congress, and signed into law by President Bush in 2006.

Tsunami sensors

For decades, NOAA and the agencies that were brought together to create NOAA in 1970, had been working to improve technology to detect and forecast tsunamis. One year before the 2004 tsunami, scientists at PMEL had successfully transferred the first six tsunami sensing buoys to the National Weather Service’s National Data Buoy Center to transmit near real-time data on tsunamis from the deep ocean floor to NOAA’s warning centers in Hawaii and Alaska.

This accomplishment was fueled by a desire to improve the accuracy of the U.S. warning system and reduce the problem of false warnings. That problem caught the attention of the late Senator Daniel P. Inouye of Hawaii who helped secure some of the initial federal funding for NOAA Research to develop the sensing buoy, called the Deep-Ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunami Buoy or DART. Prior to the DART, the warning system was based on tide gauges near shore and seismic information. scientists knew that receiving immediate data from the deep ocean close to underwater earthquakes was a key to earlier warnings and more accurate forecasts.

“While academics were trying to develop deep ocean sensors, too, this kind of urgent, sustained research needed a concentrated investment over many years that’s often only possible for a government research lab,” said Bernard.

In the last ten years, NOAA has tested, improved and refined the DART technology and expanded the network of sensors to include 39 buoys operated by NOAA in the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. In addition, some 21 other DARTs are operated by eight other countries and are positioned near fault lines in the Indian and Pacific oceans, bringing the global network to 60.

A DART consists of a pressure gauge on the seafloor that detects tsunami activity, transmits information by acoustic modem to the buoy, which then retransmits these data by satellite to the U.S. tsunami warning centers in Hawaii and Alaska to be distributed by internet to interested parties around the world.

“If the same Indian Ocean tsunami were to occur today, we believe we might still lose many, but it would be on the order of tens of thousands of people as compared to 240,000,” said Vasily Titov, director of NOAA’s Center for Tsunami Research in Seattle. “We’ve developed three generations of tsunami warning buoys and we’re working on the fourth generation.”

Advances in Tsunami Forecasting

Data from the DART buoys are used to forecast where a tsunami will go and how vulnerable coasts will be flooded. Ten years ago, it took days to collect data and assemble models for flooding forecast. Today, scientists use a new generation of models, NOAA’s communication and supercomputer capacity to create a community-specific actionable flooding forecast within minutes of receiving the first data from DART.

Scientists at NOAA’s PMEL are now working on the fourth generation DART buoys to provide even quicker tsunami detection and warning. While real time forecasts allowed Hawaii to have several hours warning to prepare for the wave from Japan’s 2011 tsunami, residents of the U.S. West Coast will have only minutes warning if an earthquake along the Cascadian fault line, which runs from northern California to Vancouver Island, triggers a tsunami.

“A new generation of observing systems will produce the forecast within minutes of an earthquake,” said Titov. These DART buoys are designed to be placed closer to the fault lines and still accurately measure the tsunami. They will detect tsunamis more quickly and transmit information immediately, enabling quicker evacuations and saved lives.

Community preparedness

NOAA scientists are also providing advanced forecast system models for communities to increase preparedness and resiliency. The coastal inundation forecast models incorporate local topography and historical tsunami data to more accurately predict exactly how a wave might behave when it hits the shore. Before these models, scientists could only predict arrival time, not flooding potential. PMEL has created site-specific flooding models for 75 coastal communities on the east and west coasts, including Alaska, Hawaii, American Samoa, U.S. Territories, Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands.  

The first version of the forecast system was installed at the National Weather Service tsunami warning centers in Hawaii and Alaska in June 2009. After intensive evaluation, the world’s first fully tested and verified tsunami flooding forecast system became NOAA’s operational system in 2013.

NOAA Research results in economic benefits

In 2007, PMEL reached another major milestone when it received its first patent for the DART buoy technology and licensed this technology to Science Applications International Corporation, which now builds and sells DART buoys around the world to enable other nations to provide reliable warnings.

The DART license agreement has created engineering, manufacturing and other jobs in the United States. Exporting this technology is also helping other nations protect themselves from future tsunamis.

Over the past 10 years, more accurate forecasts have prevented three unnecessary tsunami evacuations for Hawaii, avoiding an estimated $200 million in costs. More accurate forecasting also led to the appropriate evacuation of Hawaii during the 2011 Japanese tsunami, when there was extensive tsunami flooding. Thanks to accurate forecasting, there was no evacuation of the west coast for this tsunami, because the forecast predicted only be minor flooding.

New Challenges

While significant progress has been made at the national and international level in tsunami warning, forecasting, and preparedness, there remain challenges in forecasting and in creating better prepared and resilient coastal communities.

NOAA scientists continue to refine and improve the speed and accuracy of the DART-based forecast system, making it more reliable, less costly to produce and operate. In future years, scientists will develop and refine software that puts tsunami forecast information into the hands of more users. Another major challenge is to create greater resiliency along the coasts, so that not only do we have better warnings that minimize loss of life, but we also have communities that are better designed to recover quickly from tsunamis. This will involve engineering more resistant harbors, roads, schools, homes, businesses and power plants.

“A decade after the 2004 tsunami, we’ve made remarkable progress advancing forecast and warning technologies due to the dedication of NOAA scientists and engineers, an ability to continually test and improve  these technologies during numerous tsunamis and the continuity of NOAA financial support for research and development,” said Titov.

For more information on NOAA's major advancements since the Indian Ocean Tsunami, please go to a special section on NOAA's Weather Ready Nation. Go online to read a profile of Vasily Titov, the director of NOAA's Center for Tsunami Research.




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