Sound the Warning


The U.S. tsunami warning system is good, but it could be much better, concludes a recent study by the National Research Council.

The report chaired by John Orcutt, a professor of geophysics at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, discovered that although there have been marked improvements to the system since the deadly Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, more work is needed to ensure the safety of those near the coastline if a tsunami warning is issued.


The report revealed that an earthquake on June 14, 2005, off the coast of California resulted in contradictory reports issued by the nation’s two Tsunami Warning centers located in Hawaii and Alaska. The Alaska center warned the Pacific coast region that there was a chance of a tsunami, while the Hawaii center said no warning was needed for the same area. Each center independently monitors seismic activity and analyzes information from coastal sea-level gauges and open ocean sensors. The report’s committee recommended better coordination, organization, and management of the centers to avoid uncertainty in the future.

“People near the coast need to know they must move quickly away from the beaches and to higher ground if an earthquake happens. Many people don’t inherently know what to do and that’s what we need to change,” Orcutt said referring to the most recent tsunami that hit Sumatra, Indonesia, in late October and killed more than 150 people.

The analysis also suggested improving public education about tsunamis to ensure that people understand what to do when a warning is issued. It noted that survival also depends on the ability of the public to recognize natural cues of a tsunami such as earthquake shaking and to know to evacuate to an elevated area even without official warnings.


Despite their concerns, the committee found that the expansion of a network of tsunami-detecting ocean sensors enhanced the ability to identify and forecast tsunamis. There were also noted improvements in tsunami hazard and evacuation maps and increased assessments on the vulnerability of coastal populations in several states.

“This must be a broad effort. We need more than just technological improvements, education is the most important aspect to reducing the loss of life from a tsunami,” Orcutt said.


--Caitlin Denham

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