NOAA scientists acted quickly
when a warning was issued about the powerful undersea earthquake in
the Indian Ocean that triggered a devastating tsunami.
The NOAA Pacific Tsunami Warning
in Hawaii issued an information bulletin at 8:14 p.m. EST
Saturday, indicating that a magnitude 8.0 earthquake had occurred off
the west coast of Northern Sumatra. Because the earthquake, reported
to be one of the strongest in the world in the past 40 years, occurred
in the Indian Ocean, not the Pacific, there was no threat of a tsunami
to the West Coast of North America. (Click NOAA image for larger
view of Indonesia tsunami epicenter map. Click
for high resolution version, which is a large file. Please
credit “NOAA.”)

a few hours of learning of the tsunamis that killed thousands in Indonesia
Saturday night, Vasily
Titov, associate director of the Tsunami
Inundation Mapping Efforts
, or TIME, at the NOAA Pacific Marine
Environmental Laboratory in Seattle, Wash., and his counterpart in Japan
had created preliminary model estimates of the event.

(NOAA animation
of Indonesia tsunami. Click
for QuickTime movie. Please credit “NOAA. Click
for QuickTime movie of deployment of NOAA tsunami
buoy in the north Pacific in June 2002. Click
for deployment of the Bottom
Pressure Recorder
, BPR, which measures the pressure from the overlying
ocean at a specific site.)

A tsunami
is a series of ocean waves generated by any rapid large-scale disturbance
of the sea water. Most tsunamis are generated by earthquakes, but they
may also be caused by volcanic eruptions, landslides, undersea slumps
or meteor impacts.

In 1963
the term “tsunami” was adopted internationally to describe
this natural phenomenon. A Japanese word, it is the combination of the
characters tsu (harbor) and nami (wave). They are often mistakenly called
“tidal waves.” However, the tides have nothing to do with
the formation of tsunamis.

The waves
radiate outward in all directions from the disturbance and can propagate
across entire ocean basins. For example, in 1960, an earthquake in Chile
caused a tsunami that swept across the Pacific to Japan. Tsunami waves
are distinguished from ordinary ocean waves by their great length between
peaks, often exceeding 100 miles in the deep ocean, and by the long
amount of time between these peaks, ranging from
five minutes to an hour.

While they
cannot be seen from the air, or felt aboard an ocean-going ship, tsunamis
can cause as great a loss of life and property as their other natural
disaster cousins-tornadoes and hurricanes.

The speed
at which tsunamis travel depends on the ocean depth. A tsunami can exceed
500 mph in the deep ocean but slows to 20 or 30 mph in the shallow water
near land. In less than 24 hours, a tsunami can cross the entire Pacific

A tsunami
warning system for the West Coast of the U.S. recently was awarded the
Gold Medal, the Department of Commerce’s highest award.

with any natural hazard, education and warnings are essential,”
said Eddie N. Bernard, director of the NOAA
Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory
and first chairman of the
Tsunami Hazard Mitigation program, a multi-state, multi-agency effort.
“If people know what a tsunami is, what causes it, and what to
do in case it happens, fewer lives may be lost.”

caught in the path of a tsunami are at extreme risk from being crushed
or struck by debris, or drowning. Children and the elderly are particularly
at risk, as they often have less mobility, strength and endurance. Residents
are advised to seek higher ground or travel inland to get out of the
tsunami’s path.

Part of
NOAA’s mission is to understand changes in the Earth’s environment
and to provide public safety services.

National Weather Service
operates two tsunamis warning centers-one
each in Hawaii and Alaska. The West Coast/Alaska
Tsunami Warning Center
was established in 1967 as a result of the
1964 9.2 earthquake in Alaska that left 132 dead-122 of those
deaths have been attributed to the tsunami that was generated.

The Pacific
Tsunami Warning Center was established in 1948, following the 1946 tsunami
in Hawaii that left more than 150 people dead. In December 2001, the
center was renamed the Richard H. Hagemeyer Pacific Tsunami Warning
Center in honor of the late director of the NOAA National Weather Service
Pacific Region who ran the U.S. Tsunami Program for 19 years.

To increase
awareness about tsunamis, the NOAA National Weather Service began the
voluntary TsunamiReady Community program that helps areas prepare for
such events. To date, there are 10 communities in Alaska, Washington,
Oregon and California that have met the TsunamiReady criteria.

The Coastal
Ocean Program
at the NOAA
Ocean Service
supported development of two tools for dealing with
Tsunami Hazards: model-based inundation maps and the deep ocean warning
system. Inundation maps, developed by the NOAA Pacific Marine Environmental
Laboratory, identify areas that are susceptible to flooding before a
tsunami occurs and are used to develop evacuation and land-use plans.
The NOAA Ocean Service also operates an extensive network of tide gauges
used by the warning centers to determine if a tsunami has been generated.

dedicated to enhancing economic security and national safety through
the prediction and research of weather and climate-related events and
providing environmental stewardship of the nation’s coastal and marine
resources. NOAA is part of the U.S.
Department of Commerce.

Relevant Web Sites
NOAA Pacific
Tsunami Warning Center Bulletins and Map

Tsunami Page

Assessment and Reporting of Tsunamis (DART)

Water Level Observation Network

and Tsunamis

Tsunami Warning System Receives High Marks


in Honolulu, Hawaii, (808) 532-6411; Jana
, NOAA Research,
in Silver Spring, Md, (301) 713-2483; or Ann Thomason in Seattle, Wash.,
(206) 526-6800