Professor in state urges Caribbean tsunami detection


Published: Thursday, January 6, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 6, 2005 at 12:00 a.m.
As scientists across the world continue to call for an international warning system to detect tsunamis, a Florida Institute of Technology professor is resisting the urge to say "I told you so."
George Maul, a professor of oceanography who leads the Melbourne university's department of marine and environmental systems, has lobbied President Bush and other leaders for years to implement a system to detect tsunamis in the Caribbean Sea that could eventually include Florida and other parts of the region.
NOAA's National Weather Service now operates only two tsunami warning centers in the Pacific Ocean, where most tsunamis occur. Experts said a warning system in the Indian Ocean could have saved thousands of lives in the tsunami that took several hours to hit Asia late last month.
"What I worry about is that at the moment, we're no more protected in the Atlantic than they were over there," Maul said.
Maul started to push for a wider tsunami-detection system about 11 years ago while leading a United Nations subcommittee charged with studying ocean processes and climate in and around the Caribbean Sea, where underwater earthquakes have spurred deadly tsunamis in the past.
The commission won approval to start the Caribbean project with the University of Puerto Rico in 2002, Maul said, and a bare-bones system is already in place there.
The university staffs the center, Maul said, leaving stretches of time when no one is monitoring incoming data. That's in contrast to the 24-hour staffing by professionals at the Pacific stations.
It's also missing the expensive deep-sea buoys that can give hours of advance notice, Maul said. The Pacific stations' detection buoys, which measure conditions on the ocean floor and send data to the warning centers, can cost up to $250,000 apiece and more to maintain, Maul said.
Marie Trabert, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Jacksonville, said the weather service monitors local storms using weather buoys off the coast of St. Augustine and in the Gulf of Mexico.
The buoys can monitor things like wind speed and temperature, Trabert said, but it's unlikely they would provide any kind of early notice for a fast-moving tsunami.
"If there were a tsunami headed our way, the buoys wouldn't register much more than a few feet above normal sea level," Trabert said.
A cheaper option may be equipping existing tide gauges to measure things like bottom pressure, currents and tides, though the warning might not be as early, Maul said.
Maul said he hopes the project grows to the point that weather buoys everywhere are equipped to detect tsunamis.
"My vision is, this could be a wonderful starting place using existing infrastructure," Maul said.
For now, the Caribbean center monitors tsunamis this way: When an earthquake occurs, staffers use existing seismometers to figure out whether it started underwater, then whether it was strong enough to cause a tsunami. If it's strong enough, they send out a public warning.
Geologists say an earthquake or a landslide off a volcanic island in the Atlantic Ocean could cause a tsunami to cross the ocean and hit Florida as well.
It's happened before, or at least something like it, said Harold Mofjeld, a senior scientist with NOAA's tsunami research program in Seattle. A deep-sea landslide in 1929 created a tsunami that killed 27 people in Newfoundland, Mofjeld said.
Mofjeld said there's basic research under way to monitor the continental shelf in the Atlantic Ocean to improve the chances of forecasting a similar East Coast disaster, but that nothing definitive had been proposed.
Mofjeld and Maul both said it's just as important to have a system to alert people living in coastal areas that a tsunami is on the way and to educate them about how to prepare for it by setting up escape routes and evacuation procedures.
"Puerto Rico has gotten funding for putting up signs that say, 'Maremoto,' or, 'If you feel a sea quake, this is the direction to be running,' " Maul said. "It can be that easy. This needs to be done in a larger sense for the coastal community for the world."
The system Florida uses to warn its residents of hurricane threats and tell them how to prepare for hurricanes is a perfect start, Mofjeld said.
In October 2003, Maul wrote letters to President Bush and to every senator whose state borders the Atlantic Ocean, he said. He told them how important a regional tsunami-detection system was, and waited to hear back.
Maul's letter to the president trickled down to the head of the National Weather Service, who told him the Caribbean project, which could cost about $1 million a year to maintain with the needed upgrades, could get funding in the next NOAA budget.
After the Asian tsunami hit, he contacted Bush again, he said, this time by e-mail.
"I reminded him of the letter I sent a year ago," Maul said. "I didn't say 'I told you so,' but boy, I sure wanted to. I think now we just need to restate the need in a rational fashion and see if, this time, we can move this thing forward."
Amy Reinink can be reached at (352) 374-5088 or reinina@gvillesun.com.

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