Campus researchers develop tsunami early-warning system

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New research from the Berkeley Seismological Laboratory may save lives and property by providing residents of coastal areas with more than 20 additional minutes to evacuate from dangerous tsunamis.

According to a new paper accepted for publication in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, existing seismographic equipment and GPS instruments at monitoring stations worldwide could be used to increase the speed and accuracy of tsunami warnings.

“The current system does not give people enough time to prepare,” said Diego Melgar, a researcher from the Berkeley Seismological Laboratory and lead author of the paper. “There is lots of room for improvement.”

Current tsunami warning systems rely on a network of expensive ocean-based instrumentation, which includes buoys and seafloor sensors, according to Roland Burgmann, a campus professor of earth and planetary science who also conducts research on plate tectonics.

According to Melgar, these existing technologies — used by government agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, which issues tsunami warnings in the United States — are prepared to provide multiple hours of notice for tsunamis that are caused by faraway earthquakes. These systems, however, fail to provide adequate warning for tsunamis formed by earthquakes close to shore, he said.

“The NOAA system was never designed for local warning, for warning close to the shore,” Melgar said.

Under the NOAA system, coastal residents may only have between 10 and 30 minutes to prepare for an incoming tsunami, according to Burgmann.

The new approach, which uses land measurements of earthquakes recorded with existing equipment to mathematically model tsunamis, can produce tsunami-warning maps within two to three minutes of an earthquake’s occurrence, according to the study.

To evaluate their findings, the study’s authors examined four recent tsunami-generated earthquakes in Japan and Chile. Had their system been in place, Burgmann said, they could have generated more accurate warnings faster than the existing systems.

The study was funded by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, which initially became interested in the project as an earthquake early-warning effort for the Pacific coast. The foundation has poured more than $10 million into a collaborated effort with UC Berkeley, CalTech, the University of Washington and the U.S. Geological Survey, according to Aanika Carroll, a program associate at the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

Because the new monitoring system relies on existing equipment, the paper’s authors hope that their approach can be implemented rapidly by national monitoring and warning agencies, including NOAA.

Such an adoption is a complicated effort and would require balancing the interests of many agencies, including NOAA, NASA and USGS, Melgar said.

While there is no formal timeline for the adoption of the researchers’ new approach, Melgar said, a meeting is scheduled in March at the NOAA National Tsunami Warning Center to discuss future steps.

Contact Adam Iscoe at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @iscoe_dc