US tsunami warning system needs urgent overhaul, experts say

By Caitlin Kaiser and Allison Chinchar, CNN

Earlier this year, an underwater volcano erupted in Tonga, triggering a widespread tsunami. Although advisories were issued, there was confusion at the time as the event was not triggered by an earthquake, which tsunami prediction models do not take into account.

And last week a magnitude of 7.4 earthquake in japan triggered tsunami warnings across the country. Japan’s tsunami system worked very well, issuing warnings within minutes of the earthquake.

But how would the US tsunami warning system have handled a similar situation?

According to a recent reportexperts doubt the United States could have issued alerts at similar speeds.

The report, written by an advisory group of tsunami experts, says the US warning system is in dire need of an overhaul, struggling with outdated technology, delayed forecasts and disjointed communication.

It warns the Science Advisory Board of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA SAB) that there is an “urgent need for action” as it is only a matter of time before another tsunami threatens the American coast.

“The issues we have observed and commented on cause great confusion among local authorities, the public and the media when a tsunami occurs,” said Rocky Lopes, co-chair of the Tsunami Science & Technology Advisory Panel (TSTAP), and a co-author of the report, told CNN.

Tsunamis are extremely large waves that occur as a result of a sudden ocean shift. They are most commonly caused by earthquakes, but can also be triggered by volcanic eruptions and landslides. These towering waves can cause considerable damage to coastal communities and, most importantly, lead to high death tolls.

Areas along the Pacific Ocean, such as California, Alaska and Hawaii, are particularly prone to tsunamis. This is because earthquakes and volcanic activity are intensified around the Pacific Ocean basin, dubbed the “Ring of Fire”.

“It is estimated that hundreds of thousands of residents and employees as well as millions of visitors find themselves in tsunami-prone areas along the coastal regions of the United States each year,” said Dr. Nate Wood, geographer of research supervisor for the United States Geological Survey, said in the report.

Given Tonga’s recent volcanic eruption and subsequent tsunami waves that reached the west coast of the United States, urgent updates are needed to protect a growing US coastal population, according to the advisory group.

Two different offices can mean two different messages

The report’s most pressing recommendations include improvements to NOAA’s tsunami warning system and its two tsunami warning centers. There are “gaps and inconsistencies throughout the tsunami warning and forecasting process,” the report warns.

Problems include late communication of warnings, outdated technology and lack of coordination between the two centers, which often lead to mixed messages to the public.

The National Tsunami Warning Center, located in Palmer, Alaska, covers the lower 48 states plus Alaska and Canada, while the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, located in Honolulu, serves the Hawaiian Islands as well as the U.S. Pacific Islands , the Caribbean territories and the British Virgin. He is.

Due to different locations and needs, both centers have individually have diversified their technology and methods, causing discrepancies and preventing seamless backup should either center malfunction, according to the report.

The website used to consolidate all tsunami bulletins from the two warning centers,, also presented many concerns for TSTAP.

“ is a consolidated website that features real-time information from both tsunami warning centers. Unless you really understand where the information is coming from and dig into all the data, it’s hard to know which center publishes which bulletin and which applies to where,” Lopes told CNN.

The lack of organization and consolidation makes the website difficult to understand for the public and local authorities. This has led to problems in recent months.

“For example, when the Tonga volcanic eruption happened on January 15, some media reported that the west coast of the United States was under a tsunami warning, and it was not a tsunami warning. . This is called a tsunami advisory, which is a lower level alert that does not require, for example, evacuations,” Lopes said.

Timing is key

Although initial reports arrive quickly from both warning centers, a full forecast detailing where and when tsunamis may occur can take up to three hours, according to the report.

The advisory board notes that after an 8.2 magnitude earthquake hit Alaska on July 28, 2021, West Coast states were “underrated” for three hours after the event. That would have left an hour – before the tsunami reached land – for authorities to make announcements regarding evacuations if they had been necessary.

The advisory group stressed the need for tsunami warning centers to publish earlier estimates of impacts. He said the delayed messaging “leaves decision makers lost and unable to make important life safety decisions in the time needed to issue a successful evacuation if needed.”

New technologies, including satellite data, could potentially help warning centers make more accurate and timely forecasts, according to the advisory group.

And tsunami experts point to the lack of a “standardized system for real-time monitoring of tsunami activity, potential, and tsunami risk” for sources other than earthquakes.

This means that for tsunamis caused by landslides or volcanic eruptions, such as the Tonga volcano, there are currently no prediction tools, which could have catastrophic effects.

TSTAP encourages collaboration among state and federal agencies to help forecast these near-term events, while NOAA works to integrate these other sources into its tsunami forecast database.

The advisory group hopes its report will help the two tsunami warning centers “better coordinate and align their methods, forecasts and messages”.

“NOAA will provide a formal written response to our report, which is due by the end of this calendar year. This report will detail what they are doing in response to our recommendations and this will be posted on the NOAA SAB website” , said Lopes.

He said if there were any actual changes to the systems, there would also be a public notification statement on the NWS website.

Now is the time to prepare for tsunamis

Sunday marks the start of Tsunami Awareness Week, which encourages people living in high-risk areas to prepare for possible events.

State, federal and local offices are urging coastal communities to recognize the risk they face and prepare as much as possible for the tsunami.

States such as California and Alaska will host virtual programs and social media conversations this week centered around understanding warning signs, planning an evacuation route and building an emergency kit. ’emergency.

Tsunami Awareness Week coincides with the anniversary of the 1964 Alaska tsunami that killed more than 130 people and caused unprecedented property damage.

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