The country’s tsunami warning system is in ‘urgent need’ of an upgrade, according to expert panel

The country’s tsunami warning system is in “urgent need” of an overhaul. That’s according to a report compiled by a panel of seven tsunami experts and presented to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Scientific Advisory Board in January.

The U.S. currently has two tsunami warning centers, which operate independently of one another: one in Honolulu, Hawaii and the other in Palmer, Alaska. 

Rocky Lopes co-chairs a group of tsunami experts that’s been studying the nation’s preparedness and issued the report.

“They’re both independently analyzing an event that may produce a tsunami. Sometimes they come up with different results, sometimes those results are shared and sometimes they’re not,” said Lopes.

That can lead to confusion, he said. Unifying the country’s two tsunami warning centers was among eight recommendations identified by the Tsunami Science and Technology Advisory Panel.

“When you visit, which is the singular website that displays the results of both tsunami warning centers in near real time the different bulletins – it’s hard to really know unless you really study it, which center is issuing which bulletin,” he said.

The underwater volcanic eruption in Tonga back in January highlighted that issue and others. Lopes said the most destructive tsunamis are caused by underwater earthquakes. The Tonga eruption generated seismic ripples on the ocean floor, but it wasn’t an earthquake, and both tsunami warning centers had to depend more heavily on other ocean equipment – like special buoys that watch for tsunami waves – and manually update their systems to get the alert out. 

In other words – gathering data and issuing a tsunami alert is pretty routine when an earthquake has generated a wave, but it’s more complicated when the tsunami is from a non-seismic source. Having two separate tsunami centers working on the same problem makes it difficult to efficiently get information out to the public. And if one center went offline, that would be a problem.

“Both tsunami warning centers are both functioning quite well,” said Lopes. “When an event happens like Tonga, they rose to the occasion and they did everything right. We just have more to go, we have better alerting to do, we have better capability and backup that we need to have implemented that we don’t quite have right now.”

The tsunami panel’s report was the first one submitted to NOAA’s Scientific Advisory Board under the federal Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act – also known as The Weather Act. It was passed in 2017 to boost NOAA research. The advisory group is required to submit a new report to NOAA’s Scientific Advisory Board every four years, and NOAA has a year to formally respond, according to the legislation.

Despite some of the shortcomings of the tsunami warning system as a whole, Lopes said Alaska has done a lot to prepare its coastal communities for a disaster. The University of Alaska Fairbanks, for instance, has mapped tsunami inundation zones for the state’s entire coastline and out the Aleutian chain. 

That’s been helpful for city officials in Kodiak. The city has been working with UAF for about 3 years to update its inundation maps. And Kodiak’s city manager Mike Tvenge said they plan to hang posters in hotels and public areas around town with the information. 

Lopes also pointed to NOAA trainings and communication between coastal communities and the Tsunami Warning Center in Palmer as a strong point. Getting both Tsunami Warning Centers on the same page, though, will streamline the system. 

“We’re really looking forward to it being more unified and having clearer communication for everyone – for emergency managers, for local officials, for the media, for the public,” he said.

Many of the panel’s recommendations are longer-term fixes, and what NOAA will do with the recommendations is unclear for now – agency officials didn’t respond to emails seeking comment.

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