(BIVN) – This week’s USGS Volcano Watch article focuses on the tsunami threat to Hawaiʻi, and the 24/7 monitioring at the PAcific Tsunami Warning Center.
From the article, written by Jonathan R. Weiss, a Geophysicist with the NOAA/NWS/Pacific Tsunami Warning Center:
It’s 3 a.m. and you’re halfway through a 12-6 a.m. graveyard shift at the NOAA Pacific Tsunami Warning Center (PTWC) in Honolulu, Hawaii.
Fortunately, you slept before your shift began so you’re feeling alert while you alternate between performing checks on the global seismic and sea level data analysis systems and doing research aimed at improving the speed and accuracy of earthquake magnitude estimation.
The Inouye Regional Center, located on Ford Island in the middle of Pearl Harbor, is quiet and the lights are dim. This time of day at PTWC can be spooky; you and your colleague (asleep in one of the standby rooms) are the only people in the repurposed and modernized World War II-era airplane hangar. Every glimmer and rattle raises your eyebrows.
You brew some coffee and as you wait one of your beepers goes off notifying you that an earthquake has just occurred in the southwest Pacific Ocean. You abandon your warm beverage and hustle to the operations center. You have one minute to perform a preliminary assessment before the standby scientist is alerted.
There are only a few seismic stations on remote islands in the southwest Pacific, so it is critical to work fast as the seismic waves propagate outwards from the source. A quick visual inspection of the data scrolling across one of the monitors indicates that a large and potentially tsunamigenic event has just occurred.
The computer-generated automatic solutions confirm your suspicion. The earthquake was shallow and probably had a magnitude (M) greater than 8.5. Your stress level increases but your training has prepared you to handle the event. You immediately send a “PLEASE RESPOND” page to your teammate and you begin to further analyze the seismic information to better constrain the earthquake location and magnitude.
A moment later your coworker emerges ready to assist you with issuing initial tsunami threat messages, forecasting tsunami wave arrival times and amplitudes using numerical models, and monitoring coastal sea-level gauges and seafloor pressure sensors to confirm that a tsunami was generated. The phone rings and you hear the voice of a concerned colleague from the Tonga Meteorological Office on the line. Two minutes have passed since the initial pager alarm sounded. It’s going to be a long and nerve-racking day.
The scenario described above is hypothetical and intended to paint a picture of life working at PTWC. An M8.5 or greater earthquake in the southwest Pacific would likely be deadly; the 2009 M8.1 Samoa Islands earthquake and tsunami killed hundreds of people and caused catastrophic damage to Samoan and Tongan coastal communities and marine ecosystems.
Despite ongoing enhancements to the global network of seismic instruments and continued efforts aimed at improving community preparedness, tsunamis, whether caused by a submarine earthquake, volcanic eruption, or landslide, still pose a major threat globally. The Hawaiian Islands, located in the center of the Pacific Ocean, are in a precarious position. The largest tsunamigenic earthquakes, which typically occur in places like Japan, the Aleutian Islands, and Chile, generate waves that more often than not head directly to Hawaii.
The 1946 M8.6 Aleutian Islands earthquake and tsunami, which led to the establishment of PTWC, killed 159 people in Hawaii. The 1960 M9.5 Chile earthquake (the largest ever recorded) and tsunami caused Pacific-wide destruction and killed 61 Hawaii residents. However, it has been well over half a century since Hawaii was heavily impacted by a damaging tsunami. Even the 2011 M9.1 Japan earthquake and tsunami, which wreaked havoc across large swaths of the Pacific, caused relatively minor damage in Hawaii.
The recent wildfires in Maui have focused a spotlight on natural disaster preparedness and response. In addition, September is National Preparedness Month. Hawaii will likely be threatened again by a potentially deadly tsunami considering the frequency of past events. PTWC, the NOAA National Tsunami Warning Center in Alaska, and Tsunami Service Providers around the world serve as the first line of defense but coastal community residents can do their part to educate themselves about all natural hazards, including earthquakes and tsunamis. For more information visit tsunami.gov and tsunamiwave.org.