Tsunami warning system

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File:Tsunami evac sign Seaside Oregon.JPG
Evacuation route sign in a low-lying coastal area on the West Coast of the United States

A tsunami warning system (TWS) is used to detect tsunamis in advance and issue warnings to prevent loss of life and damage. It is made up of two equally important components: a network of sensors to detect tsunamis and a communications infrastructure to issue timely alarms to permit evacuation of the coastal areas. There are two distinct types of tsunami warning systems: international and regional. When operating, seismic alerts are used to instigate the watches and warnings; then, data from observed sea level height (either shore-based tide gauges or DART buoys) are used to verify the existence of a tsunami. Other systems have been proposed to augment the warning procedures; for example, it has been suggested that the duration and frequency content of t-wave energy (which is earthquake energy trapped in the ocean SOFAR channel) is indicative of an earthquake's tsunami potential.[1]

History and forecasting

The first rudimentary system to alert communities of an impending tsunami was attempted in Hawaii in the 1920s. More advanced systems were developed in the wake of the April 1, 1946 (caused by the 1946 Aleutian Islands earthquake) and May 23, 1960 (caused by the 1960 Valdivia earthquake) tsunamis which caused massive devastation in Hilo, Hawaiisource needed. While tsunamis travel at between 500 and 1,000 km/h (around 0.14 and 0.28 km/s) in open water, earthquakes can be detected almost at once as seismic waves travel with a typical speed of 4 km/s (around 14,400 km/h)source needed. This gives time for a possible tsunami forecast to be made and warnings to be issued to threatened areas, if warranted. Unfortunately, until a reliable model is able to predict which earthquakes will produce significant tsunamis, this approach will produce many more false alarms than verified warningssource needed.

International warning systems (IWS)

Pacific Ocean

Japanese Tsunami warning sign

Tsunami warnings for most of the Pacific Ocean are issued by the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center (PTWC), operated by the United States NOAA in Ewa Beach, Hawaii. NOAA's National Tsunami Warning Center (NTWC) in Palmer, Alaska issues warnings for the west coast of North America, including Alaska, British Columbia, Oregon and California. The PTWC was established in 1949, following the 1946 Aleutian Island earthquake and a tsunami that resulted in 165 casualties on Hawaii and in Alaska; NTWC was founded in 1967. International coordination is achieved through the International Coordination Group for the Tsunami Warning System in the Pacific, established by the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO.[2]

Indian Ocean (ICG/IOTWS)

File:Tsunami-warning-centre hikkaduwa sri-lanka.jpg
Tsunami Early Warning Tower board in Hikkaduwa, Sri Lanka

After the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami which killed almost 250,000 people, a United Nations conference was held in January 2005 in Kobe, Japan, and decided that as an initial step towards an International Early Warning Programme, the UN should establish an Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning System. This then resulted in a system of warnings in Indonesia and other affected areas.

North Eastern Atlantic, the Mediterranean and Connected Seas (ICG/NEAMTWS)

The First United Session of the Inter-governmental Coordination Group for the Tsunami Early Warning and Mitigation System in the North Eastern Atlantic, the Mediterranean and connected Seas (ICG/NEAMTWS), established by the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO Assembly during its 23rd Session in June 2005, through Resolution XXIII.14, took place in Rome on 21 and 22 November 2005.

The meeting, hosted by the Government of Italy (the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Italian Ministry for the Environment and Protection of Land and Sea), was attended by more than 150 participants from 24 countries, 13 organizations and numerous observers.


A Caribbean-wide tsunami warning system was planned to be instituted by the year 2010, by representatives of Caribbean nations who met in Panama City in March 2008. Panama's last major tsunami killed 4,500 people in 1882.[3] Barbados has said it will review or test its tsunami protocol in February 2010 as a regional pilot.[4]

Regional warning systems

Regional (or local) warning system centres use seismic data about nearby recent earthquakes to determine if there is a possible local threat of a tsunami. Such systems are capable of issuing warnings to the general public (via public address systems and sirens) in less than 15 minutes. Although the epicenter and moment magnitude of an underwater quake and the probable tsunami arrival times can be quickly calculated, it is almost always impossible to know whether underwater ground shifts have occurred which will result in tsunami waves. As a result, false alarms can occur with these systems, but the disruption is small, which makes sense due to the highly localised nature of these extremely quick warnings, in combination with how difficult it would be for a false alarm to affect more than a small area of the system. Real tsunamis would affect more than just a small portion.[citation needed]

Conveying the warning

File:Okumatsushima tsunami P1130317 rotated.jpg
Mast with warning system, and sign detailing escape routes, on the coast of Okumatsushima, Miyagi prefecture, Japan (this coast was severely hit by the 2011 tsunami)

Detection and prediction of tsunamis is only half the work of the system. Of equal importance is the ability to warn the populations of the areas that will be affected. All tsunami warning systems feature multiple lines of communications (such as SMS, e-mail, fax, radio, texting and telex, often using hardened dedicated systems) enabling emergency messages to be sent to the emergency services and armed forces, as well to population-alerting systems (e.g. sirens) and the Emergency Alert System


With the speed at which tsunami waves travel through open water, no system can protect against a very sudden tsunami, where the coast in question is too close to the epicenter. A devastating tsunami occurred off the coast of Hokkaidō in Japan as a result of an earthquake on July 12, 1993. As a result, 202 people on the small island of Okushiri, Hokkaido lost their lives, and hundreds more were missing or injured. This tsunami struck just three to five minutes after the quake, and most victims were caught while fleeing for higher ground and secure places after surviving the earthquake. This was also the case in Aceh, Indonesia.

While there remains the potential for sudden devastation from a tsunami, warning systems can be effective. For example, if there were a very large subduction zone earthquake (moment magnitude 9.0) off the west coast of the United States, people in Japan, would therefore have more than 12 hours (and likely warnings from warning systems in Hawaii and elsewhere) before any tsunami arrived, giving them some time to evacuate areas likely to be affected.

See also


  1. Salzberg, 2006
  2. http://ioc.unesco.org/itsu/
  3. Reuters:Caribbean plans tsunami warning system by 2010
  4. Martindale, Carol (24 January 2010). "Time right to test disaster awareness system". Nation Newspaper. Retrieved 24 January 2010. A TSUNAMI PROTOCOL to be tested here next month will help Barbadians be better prepared to deal with natural disasters such as earthquakes. ... Harewood said Barbados was nominated and accepted as the "pilot state" for the tsunami protocol which will be discussed from February 22 to 26. He said the objective of the Standard Operational Procedure and Communications Protocol, which has been being worked on for the last two years, is to provide more information on what must be done in the event of a tsunami, earthquake or any other major disaster. He noted that one of the things they would be doing was adopting a general public service announcement through the Government Information Service (GIS) to help increase awareness of tsunamis. line feed character in |quote= at position 288 (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

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