Tsunami warning: what’s important, and what’s crucial

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The Trump administration has proposed significant cuts to the tsunami warning system. That includes all funding for dozens of sophisticated data buoys. Tsunami experts worry about this but are even more concerned about proposed cuts to something a whole lot more basic.

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A string of eight communication buoys are anchored off Alaska’s southern edge, about 200 miles from land. They’re called DART buoys – Deep-ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunamis.

Each buoy is tethered to an instrument pack on the seafloor. It beams data to a satellite

Image:NWS Tsunami Alerts

and from there to the tsunami warning centers in Palmer and Honolulu. The U.S. has 39 of these buoys, many along the Pacific Rim. They cost $12 million a year.

Alaska state seismologist Michael West says the buoys are both expensive and useful.

“They’re the one kind of sensor that really directly measures the wave height, as opposed to inferring it from the presence of an earthquake,” West said.

But West said the buoys are too close to Alaska to provide much warning time when a near-shore quake sets off a tsunami.

Last week the earthquake itself, measured by land-based seismographs, triggered the initial warning that got thousands of Alaskans out of their homes in the middle of the night.

And the Trump budget would cut sensors like those, too.

State Seismologist Michael West. Photo: Liz Ruskin

Geologist Lori Dengler, at Humboldt State University, said both kinds of technology are important.

“The DART buoys are absolutely critical,” Dengler said.

The buoys warn distant shores of a tsunami. Alaska generates a lot of earthquakes, so DART is particularly useful to Hawaii, for instance, and to California, where Dengler is.

“But in 2011 darts were very important for Alaska,” Dengler said, referring to the 9.1 magnitude earthquake that hit Japan that year, triggering a tsunami. “And when we have our great big Cascadia earthquake – which I hope won’t happen in my lifetime but could – DARTs will be very important for Alaska, to know just what we’re sending to you.”

Tsunami expert Lori Dengler. Photo courtesy of Lori Dengler.

Beyond the hardware, the Trump budget proposes to eliminate one of the two tsunami warning centers and cut 60 percent of the personnel. It would also cut grants the states use for tsunami preparation and evacuation plans. Dengler says that kind of spending is critical for an effective warning system.

“I’m as concerned about the proposals to cut outreach and education because to me, without outreach and education, without community involvement, you might as well not spend a penny on any of it,” Dengler said.

Dengler said a research trip to Indonesia after the massive 2004 tsunami forever changed her thinking on this. She went to towns where nearly every resident died.

“I spent two weeks going to community after community where you’d see one survivor,” Dengler said. “It was horrible.”

Then Dengler went to the village closest to the earthquake epicenter. They had only eight minutes between the quake and the first massive wave, so she expected the same terrible death toll. But in this village everyone knew to run to high ground.

“There was no tsunami warning. They have no electricity,” Dengler said. “But they have a long oral history, a long oral tradition of what to do when the ground shakes for a really long time.”

If Alaskans think they evacuated for nothing last week, Dengler says they are wrong. People in coastal towns figured out if they were in a tsunami zone. They found their shelters and thought about evacuation routes. Dengler says they laid down “muscle memory” about how to get up and go.

In the Indonesian village that survived in 2004, Dengler says it had been five generations since the previous killer tsunami but residents still ran after every major earthquake. One time they waited on high ground for a week and no wave came. Dengler recalls asking if they worried about false warnings.

The 2011 tsunami that struck Japan killed some 20,000 people. Photo: Liz Ruskin

“And they looked at me as if I was absolutely crazy and said ‘Every earthquake is a chance to practice our evacuation,'” Dengler said. “And on December 26, 2004 they got it. You know, practice paid off. They all lived.”

Dengler says whether the warning comes via cell phone, siren or prolonged shaking, the important thing is to evacuate from low-lying areas, and leave fast. Every time.

The U.S. Department of Commerce declined to make anyone available for an interview about the proposed cuts to the tsunami warning system. In a written statement, a department spokesman said the cuts “streamline” elements of the program while ensuring safety.

Congress has not adopted the tsunami warning cuts. Lawmakers have been keeping the government operating with a series of temporary spending measures that continue spending at last year’s levels.

The administration is due to release its 2019 budget request next month. The Department did not say whether it will also include cuts to the tsunami warning system.