- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 30, 2004

At the heart of the U.S. tsunami warning system is a network of six deep-ocean monitors anchored to the Pacific floor and capable of shooting data directly to satellites hovering over Earth.

If an earthquake along the ocean’s floor sent a tsunami on a collision course with the West Coast, the monitors would buzz to life, kicking off a chain reaction of alarms, sirens and other warnings to people in the highest threat zones.

No system as extensive exists anywhere else in the world, including on the East Coast, but scientists yesterday downplayed the probability of a tsunami slamming the Eastern seaboard.

“Big waves invading New York … I think, are fairly inappropriate, scientifically not accurate,” said Bob Morton, research geologist at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Center for Coastal and Watershed Studies in St. Petersburg, Fla.

“I’d put that in the category of another asteroid hitting us,” he said, explaining that the Atlantic Ocean lacks the major fault lines that trigger tsunamis. “The probability of that happening is so remote that it is, in fact, the reason why the United States do not have a tsunami warning system for the East Coast.

“The only place where there might be some question about would be the Caribbean area,” Mr. Morton said. Although geologic activity in the Caribbean can generate earthquakes, they most likely won’t be of the magnitude of those in the Indian or Pacific oceans, where fault lines in the earth’s crust are most active.

A tsunami warning system similar to the one off the West Coast already is in place in the Caribbean, but scientists caution that it would only be effective for U.S. possessions in that part of the world, such as Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The United Nations last year began calling on countries to fund an “intra-Americas tsunami warning system,” said Laura Kong, director of the International Tsunami Information Center based in Hawaii.

“There is an existing warning system in the Pacific because 80 to 90 percent of the earthquakes that we see that are causing tsunamis are occurring in the Pacific,” she said.

But the death and destruction caused by Sunday’s earthquake and tsunami in South Asia have been “so horrible” that world leaders have begun re-evaluating the need for a more comprehensive worldwide warning system, Miss Kong said.

The term “tsunami” is derived from the Japanese words “tsu,” which means harbor, and “nami,” which means wave. Although published reports indicate that about 80 percent occur in the Pacific and around Japan, the massive waves have a rich history around the world.

A 1755 earthquake in Lisbon resulted in tsunamis that killed thousands of coastal residents in Spain, Portugal and North Africa.

Waves reportedly topped 90 feet and crashed down on the islands of Indonesia, killing more than 35,000 people after the 1883 Krakatau volcanic explosion near Java, Indonesia.

And huge waves spawned by a magnitude 9.2 earthquake in 1964 in Alaska killed 125 persons and led to the establishment of the federal tsunami-monitoring system, managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The NOAA system focuses on the Pacific, where the large geologic plates bump against one another other on the ocean floor, generating the sort of high-magnitude earthquakes that result in tsunamis.

Although such circumstances are not characteristic of the Atlantic, scientists have entertained worst-case tsunami scenarios for the eastern United States and called for the establishment of a better warning system.

One hypothetical involves large volcanic eruptions in the Canary Islands off the coast of Morocco that would result in tsunamis affecting the Eastern seaboard.

A less likely scenario would be the one portrayed in the 1998 film “Deep Impact,” which featured a 1,000-foot-high tidal wave obliterating New York City and Washington after an asteroid crashed into the Atlantic Ocean.

Mr. Morton and Miss Kong yesterday emphasized the roles of communication and education in prevention of a tsunami-related disaster

“Once the information gets to the local people, they have to be trained to know what to do,” Mr. Morton said.

Physical indicators that often are visible in the minutes before a tsunami hits have been ignored by people who aren’t familiar with the warning signs, Mr. Morton said.

“Local inhabitants and indigenous population live on fish, and suddenly the sea opens up and here is all this marine life available,” he said. “Of course they are trying to pick up the fish, and then the water comes back in.”

He also cited the problem of tourists visiting tsunami-prone areas without any idea about the risks.

“You can communicate all you want to,” he said. “If the people don’t respond, don’t understand what the communication is all about, it is for naught.”

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