December 30, 2004
US West Coast Has Tsunami Warning System

It is possible for a massive tsunami to hit the North American West Coast. But the United States has a tsunami warning system that includes deep ocean buoys for tsunami detection and government labs that can send out messages to trigger coastal evacuations.

As the death tolls rises into the tens of thousands in Asia and the number of homeless above one million, OSU experts say many of the same forces that caused this disaster are at work elsewhere on the Pacific Ocean "ring of fire," one of the most active tectonic and volcanic regions of the world.

This clearly includes the West Coast of the U.S. and particularly the Pacific Northwest, which sits near the Cascadia Subduction Zone. Experts believe, in fact, that it was a subduction zone earthquake of magnitude 9 almost identical in power to the sub-sea earthquake that struck Asia on Monday that caused a massive tsunami around the year 1700 that caused damage as far away as Japan. And the great Alaska earthquake in 1964 caused waves that swept down the Northwest coast, causing deaths in Oregon and northern California.


Robert Yeats, professor emeritus of geosciences at OSU, agrees that the reason for the great loss of life in Sri Lanka, India, and other Asian countries was the lack of a tsunami warning system.

"That much loss of life wouldn't happen here for either a local or distant tsunami because of warning systems operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, with laboratories in Newport and Seattle," Yeats said. "NOAA would record the earthquake on seismographs and issue bulletins about the progress of a tsunami. Deep-ocean buoys off the Aleutian Islands and Cascadia would also record the passage of tsunami waves in the open ocean."

For a tsunami caused by a Cascadia earthquake, people on the coast would have about 15 minutes to get to high ground, Yeats said. Emergency managers of coastal counties have told residents about planning escape routes from a tsunami, and schools in Seaside, Ore. have had tsunami evacuation drills. Some coastal communities also give warnings through a siren for those vacationers who aren't keeping up with the news. Visitors to the coast should look for the blue and white tsunami warning signs on Highway 101 and some beach areas.

Enormously better methods for detecting earthquakes (assuming that it will some day be possible to predict earthquakes within a narrow range of time - a big if) could potentially be more valuable than tsunami warning systems. After all, if a future earthquake that will cause a tsunami could be predicted in advance then the tsunami could be predicted in advance. Then the warning to move to high ground could be announced days, weeks, months, or perhaps even years in advance. Most deaths from tsunamis would then likely come as a result of thrill-seekers doing all sorts of risky things to experience a tsunami. Surfers would try to ride massive waves and voyeurs would try to ride out a tsunami in a tall building or tall tree. Tsunamis would produce less tragedy and more entertainment to be watched via countless numbers of cameras located at every place the waves would wipe out.

Earthquakes and tsunamis are not the only natural disasters in need of better forecasting. Volcano eruption prediction would be of some value. This is especially the case with the most extreme eruptions. If something like the Krakatoa eruption happened today food production would be disrupted. The knowledge that the whole world would experience a temporary cooling for a few years would be used to grow and stockpile more food in advance. Also, volcanic disruptions can kill large numbers of people the immediate vicnity. Plus, island volcanic disruptions can cause tsunamis. So volcanic eruption forecasting is a form of tsunami forecasting.

We also need an asteroid collision detection system. This is doable. It just requires the money to be spent to build more ground and satellite observatories to find all the asteroids. Also, larger asteroids can cause tsunamis. So asteroid detection is another form of tsunami forecasting.

I do not know enough geology to say how much money would have to be spent over how long a period of time to do research to develop useful earthquake or volcanic eruption forecasting capabilities. So I have no advice to offer on geological science policy. However, I think it is a lot easier to argue that not enough is being done to detect large asteroids that are on collision courses with Earth. We have the technology needed to discover asteroids at a much faster rate. So why not delay space exploration initiatives such as the return to the Moon and the trip to Mars and spend that money on asteroid detection satellites and ground observatories? Asteroid study is a valuable way to develop more understanding of the development of solar systems. So the money spent would yield scientific insights and also possibly some day save hundreds of millions or even billions of lives.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2004 December 30 03:09 PM  Dangers Natural General

Tj Green said at January 1, 2005 4:22 PM:

I was surprised that the Indian ocean did not have a warning system.I expect tourists will keep well away from the coast,until a warning system is put in place.

Marvin said at January 2, 2005 2:22 PM:

I just finished Michael Crichton's new book State of Fear. Part of the plot involved the intentional triggering of an undersea quake in order to create a form of eco-terror. It's the first novel I've seen that had scientific references and footnotes. Pretty good overall. Much better than the last one, Prey.

I'm amazed how idiotic the enviro-politicos are being in attacking Crichton for writing a work of fiction. I guess you either get with the political program or you get steamrolled by the power hitters. It reminds me of the way Scientific American went after Lomborg and stabbed him in the back. This is the new inquisition.

Chase said at January 2, 2005 3:20 PM:

Quite interesting

Da young said at January 31, 2005 4:15 AM:

My friend in Thailand had died.....

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