Tsunami Warning System - How Does It Work?

The Tsunami Warning System – How Does It Work?

Here is how the basic tsunami warning system works in our area. First, a key concept – there are two sources of tsunami for Oregon coastal waters – a distant source and a local source.

A local source – if you feel violent shaking for several minutes, head for higher ground. The earthquake is your warning. The most likely source for a violent earthquake of this magnitude is from the Cascadia Subduction Zone just off our coast. The last associated earthquake was estimated to be 9.0 in magnitude on Jan 26, 1700, and was similar to the Dec 26, 2004 Sumatra 9.0 magnitude earthquake and subsequent Indian Ocean Basin tsunami.

What To Do? - Simulations show the initial tsunami wave from the 1700 event reached the coast in 20 to 30 minutes – so time is limited. Geologic history showed waves with this event were as high as 30 feet. So you must get at least that high above sea level.

To top it off, the earthquake will also result in the coastal area subsiding as much as six feet, meaning the ground and roadways will likely be very uneven, and you are now that much lower to sea level. Since the roads will be in pieces, evacuation must be on foot. Another form of evacuation is vertical evacuation into a sturdy building of at least three stories and climb to at least the third story.

Other area earthquake faults could produce such strong violent quakes, such as the Seattle fault that produced a tsunami in Puget Sound about 1100 years ago. Yet, the most likely source for a local tsunami is the Cascadia Subduction Zone off our coast.

A Distant Source – The perimeter of the Pacific Ocean Basin, nicknamed the Ring of Fire, has a number of earthquake sources that can produce strong earthquakes of 7.0 magnitude or greater. During the 20th century, there were three 9.0 magnitude or greater quakes, the last was the 1964 Alaskan quake of 9.2 magnitude that produced a tsunami throughout the Pacific Basin. These kind of earthquakes permit a lead time of hours before their subsequent tsunami reaches the Washington coastline. Tsunamis from distant locations like Japan or Chile will take over 10 hours to get here, while from Alaska, only three to six hours.

Tsunamis generated from both sources of earthquakes do penetrate into the Puget Sound region via the Strait of Juan de Fuca and up coastal rivers, harbors and bays, but lose energy as they move further inland.

What To Do? - A Tsunami Warning System has been put into place to help minimize loss of life and property. The West Coast/Alaska Tsunami Warning Center in Palmer, Alaska monitors for earthquakes and subsequent tsunami events. If a tsunami is generated, they issue tsunami watches and warnings, as well as tsunami information bulletins for Alaska, British Columbia and Washington, Oregon and California.

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Ewa Beach, Hawaii provides the same service for the Aloha state as well as all other American territories in the Pacific. They also serve as the International Tsunami Warning Center for 25 other member countries in the Pacific Ocean Basin.

Both of the tsunami warning centers use earthquake information, tide gauges and now a new tool from NOAA – tsunami detection buoys, developed by NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Lab. Six of these buoys are now deployed in the north Pacific to help scientists determined whether a tsunami has been generated and moving across the Pacific before reaching North American coastlines – another tool in the tsunami warning centers warning toolbox to help avoid any false alarms. More of these buoys would help detection as well as provide backup to each other since the buoys suffer outages in the harsh north Pacific Ocean.

Upon receipt of tsunami watches and warnings, coastal National Weather Service (NWS) offices such as those in Seattle and Portland, activate the Emergency Alert System (EAS) via NOAA Weather Radio. All broadcasters (TV, AM/FM radio, cable TV) receive the tsunami EAS message simultaneously as well as those with weather radio receivers in homes, businesses, schools, health care facilities, etc. NOAA Weather Radio also activates the All-Hazard Alert Broadcast (AHAB) units located in remote coastal areas, alerting people in those isolated locations.

Upon receipt of tsunami watch and warning messages, local emergency management officials can decide to activate EAS to evacuate low-lying coastal areas in advance of the initial tsunami wave. Their EAS messages are also received by broadcasters, weather radio receivers and AHABs to help provide widespread dissemination of these messages. Follow the directions provided by your area emergency management officials – they will help save your life and those of your loved ones.

If you want your own tsunami warning message receipt system, obtain a weather radio receiver with EAS-programmable features. They are available from most radio electronic retailers and on the Internet.

Education is another key element in the tsunami warning system. Many coastal areas have designated tsunami inundation zones and marked evacuation routes to assist residents and visitors to higher ground. Emergency management officials also distribute tsunami education information, conduct community meetings and workshops, and many more awareness activities.

The National Weather Service recognizes communities with strong tsunami warning and awareness programs through the TsunamiReady Community program. Such communities are recognized for their efforts to enhance their tsunami warning system, widespread use of weather radio receivers and community awareness activities. TsunamiReady road signs are also a part of NWS recognition.

Following is a diagram, briefly depicting the tsunami warning system process as well as specific terminology and links to more information.

Terminology and Links for more Information

Tsunami - Tsunamis are ocean waves produced by earthquakes or underwater landslides. The word is Japanese and means "harbor wave," because of the devastating effects these waves have had on low-lying Japanese coastal communities. Tsunamis are often incorrectly referred to as tidal waves, but a tsunami is actually a series of waves that can travel at speeds averaging 450 (and up to 600) miles per hour in the open ocean.

In the open ocean, tsunamis would not be felt by ships because the wavelength would be hundreds of miles long, with an amplitude of only a few feet. This would also make them unnoticeable from the air. As the waves approach the coast, their speed decreases and their amplitude increases. Unusual wave heights have been known to be over 100 feet high. However, waves that are 10 to 20 feet high can be very destructive and cause many deaths or injuries.

From an initial tsunami generating source area, waves travel outward in all directions much like the ripples caused by throwing a rock into a pond. As these waves approach coastal areas, the time between successive wave crests varies from 5 to 90 minutes. The first wave is usually not the largest in the series of waves, nor is it the most significant. Furthermore, one coastal community may experience no damaging waves while another, not that far away, may experience destructive deadly waves. Depending on a number of factors, some low-lying areas could experience severe inland inundation of water and debris of more than 1,000 feet.

Tsunami Watch – An alert issued to areas outside the warned area. The area included in the watch is based on the magnitude of the earthquake. For earthquakes over magnitude 7.0, the watch area is 1 hour tsunami travel time outside the warning zone. For all earthquakes over magnitude 7.5, the watch area is 3 hours tsunami travel time outside the warning zone. The watch will either be upgraded to a warning in subsequent bulletins or will be cancelled depending on the severity of the tsunami.

Tsunami Warning – Indicates that a tsunami is imminent and that coastal locations in the warned area should prepare for flooding. The initial warning is typically based on seismic information alone. Earthquakes over magnitude 7.0 trigger a warning covering the coastal regions within 2 hours tsunami travel time from the epicenter. When the magnitude is over 7.5, the warned area is increased to 3 hours tsunami travel time. As water level data showing the tsunami is recorded, the warning will either be cancelled, restricted, expanded incrementally, or expanded in the event of a major tsunami.

Emergency Alert System – http://www.fcc.gov/eb/eas/

Emergency Alert System in Washington - http://www.wsab.org/eas/eas.html

All-Hazards NOAA Weather Radio – http://www.nws.noaa.gov/nwr/

All-Hazard Alert Broadcast (AHAB) – A self-sufficient wind or solar powered warning system located in remote locations. It activates a brilliant blue US Coast Guard light and siren heard for at least a mile upon receipt of an emergency message, such as a tsunami watch or warning. It also records and repeats the verbal emergency message for those near the AHAB.

Tide Gauge – An instrument that measures the alternate rising and falling of the waters of the ocean, and of bays, rivers, etc., connected therewith. The tide ebbs and flows twice in each lunar day, or the space of a little more than twenty-four hours.

Seismometer – http://interactive2.usgs.gov/faq/list_faq_by_category/get_answer.asp?id=193

Cascadia Subduction Zone – http://www.pnsn.org/HAZARDS/CASCADIA/cascadia_zone.html

Pacific Marine Environmental Lab – http://www.pmel.noaa.gov/

(includes tsunami and tsunami monitoring links)

Tsunami Detection Buoys – http://www.ndbc.noaa.gov/dart.shtml

(located in the north Pacific Ocean)

West Coast/Alaska Tsunami Warning Center – http://wcatwc.arh.noaa.gov/

(responsible for coastal waters from Alaska to California, including Washington)

Pacific Tsunami Warning Center – http://www.prh.noaa.gov/ptwc/

(responsible for all American interests in the Pacific, including Hawaii)

International Tsunami Warning Center – http://www.prh.noaa.gov/itic/

(responsible for the other 25 member nations in the Pacific Ocean Basin)

NOAA – National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – http://www.noaa.gov

National Weather Service – http://weather.gov

Tsunami Warning Centers

- West Coast/Alaska (Palmer, AK)

- Pacific (Ewa Beach, HI)

NOAA Tsunami Detection Buoys

Tide – Sea-Level Instruments

Seismic Measuring Equipment

Continue/Expand Tsunami Information Bulletins, Tsunami Advisories, Watches and Warnings for Respective Areas

Tsunami Generated ?

Yes

No

Tsunami Information Bulletin – No Tsunami Generated, Cancel Tsunami Warning for Areas Close to Earthquake

National Weather Service Coastal Offices activate EAS for Tsunami Watches and Warnings via NOAA Weather Radio

State and Local Emergency Management Officials

TV, Radio, Cable TV

Those with NOAA Weather Radio Receivers (homes, businesses, schools, et al)

Activate EAS for Evacuation of Low-Lying Coastal Areas

All-Hazard Alert Broadcast (AHABs)

Major Undersea Earthquake/Landslide (magnitude 7.0 or greater)

General Public

Issue Tsunami Warning for Areas Close to Earthquake

(Only for Locations Close to Earthquake)

 


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