Predicting tsunamis

Better prediction and warning systems minimize impact of natural disasters

In the aftermath of the March 11 Japan earthquake and tsunami, media outlets asked whether we could have predicted these natural disasters, providing more time to prepare. Outlets including CNN, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg News, and PBS News Hour turned to Stevens Institute of Technology’s Dr. Bruce Parker for analysis and explanation. Dr. Parker is a visiting professor at the Center for Maritime Systems and author of the book, The Power of the Sea: Tsunamis, Storm Surges, Rogue Waves, and our Quest to Predict Disasters.

"We are extremely fortunate to have Bruce Parker visiting with us at The Center for Maritime Systems," says Dr. Alan Blumberg, George Meade Bond Professor and Director of the Center for Maritime Systems. "He has been an excellent resource for students and researchers, sharing his vast knowledge of water movement dynamics of estuaries and coastal regions. His class lectures have also given our students much insight into the earth-moon-sun system and their role on shaping tides on earth."

Media Coverage

In the days after the Japan disaster, many media outlets interviewed Dr. Parker because of his expertise in explaining technical ocean phenomena in layman’s terms, a reputation he built with the publication of his recent book. Dr. Parker was interviewed on CNN by Reggie Aqui in a segment titled, "Quake prediction tech: How good is it?" and also appeared on the Bloomberg News show "Taking Stock" in an interview with Pimm Fox. He is quoted on The Washington Post Online’s "On Leadership" section in the post, "Japan: Two stages of disaster," and mentioned in PBS News Hour’s "The Rundown" blog in a post, "Japan’s Earthquake and Tsunami: How They Happened."

Predicting Earthquakes and Tsunamis
The most recent tsunami to hit Japan was generated by the vertical movement of a very large area of sea floor during a 9.0-magnitude underwater earthquake 45 miles off the coast of Japan (and 80 miles east of the coastal city of Sendai). The closest point on the coast was hit by the tsunami only 26 minutes after the earthquake began. Most submarine earthquakes do not generate tsunamis, but because of the large size of this earthquake, the Japanese Meteorological Agency played it safe and issued a tsunami warning 3 minutes after the quake. NOAA's Pacific Tsunami Warning Center issued a warning 9 minutes after the quake. The very tsunami-aware Japanese were already running to high floors of strong buildings and fleeing inland. However, the 30 to 60 minutes before the tsunami struck was not enough time for many to escape.

Seismic sensors throughout the world registered the earthquake and within minutes its location had been determined to be under the ocean off Japan. Typically no one knows that a tsunami has actually been generated until it is measured at a coastal tide gauge or at a DART buoy in the open ocean (DART stands for Deep-ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunamis). The tide gauge at Ofunato, Japan, was destroyed by the tsunami 29 minutes after the quake. DART buoy number 21428 (many miles to the east of the quake) detected the tsunami 33 minutes after the quake.

"DART buoy data combined with numerical models can do a really good job of helping us predict where a tsunami is going to go, and even a pretty good job of how large it might be," Dr. Parker explains. "But this only helps countries that are at least a couple of hours away from the epicenter of the earthquake. The biggest death tolls are usually very close to the epicenter, the place where prediction would make a huge difference." Japan is well-equipped for earthquakes and tsunamis, Dr. Parker says, but the proximity of the nation to the epicenter of the March 11th earthquake meant that there was little time to escape the tsunami after the quake hit.

The ultimate solution, Dr. Parker says, is earthquake prediction. Being able to predict when a large earthquake will strike and (assuming it is underwater) whether it is the type of earthquake that will produce a tsunami, would save countless lives. Earthquake prediction alone would have saved 300,000 lives in Haiti in 2010.

So far, however, there is no system that can accurately predict earthquakes. Current research efforts include monitoring efforts in places like mineshafts in hopes of sensing possible warning signs of earthquakes, such as fluctuations in seismic activity, electromagnetic fields, or pressure. "If we could put even a fraction of the money that we pump into disaster recovery into improving earthquake and tsunami prediction, many thousands of lives would be saved in the future," Dr. Parker says.

We have been much more successful in other areas of marine forecasting, says Dr. Parker, thanks to advanced hydrodynamic models and the Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS), a global network of oceanographic sensors on buoys, ships, islands, coasts, and satellites which monitors the entire ocean system. GOOS allows scientists to understand and predict storm surges (from hurricanes and gales), large wind waves, and El Niño, though we still cannot yet predict rogue waves or certain aspects of climate change. Dr. Parker's book provides a fascinating historical view of past coastal disasters and how scientists learned to predict many of them.

Dr. Parker also wrote an article, "The Awesome Unpredictability of Tsunamis," for the weekend Wall Street Journal, appearing March 19. The article is accompanied by a video of Dr. Parker.

The Power of the Sea
The Power of the Sea: Tsunamis, Storm Surges, Rogue Waves, and our Quest to Predict Disasters has received critical acclaim since its publication by Palgrave Macmillan in late October 2010. The book mixes clearly explained science with dramatic stories of the sea’s power, from Moses’ crossing of the Red Sea to the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami.

About Dr. Bruce Parker
Dr. Parker comes to Stevens Center for Maritime Systems with plenty of experience in ocean forecasting. He was a Chief Scientist of the National Ocean Service at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Director of the Coast Survey Development Laboratory, where he led research on forecast modeling and tides. Prior to that, he was Director of the World Data Center for Oceanography, and Principle Investigator for the NOAA Global Sea Level Program. Dr. Parker holds a Ph.D. in physical Oceanography from Johns Hopkins University, a M.S. in Physical Oceanography from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and a B.S./B.A. in Biology/Physics from Brown University.

About the Center for Maritime Systems
The Center for Maritime Systems at Stevens Institute of Technology works to preserve and secure U.S. maritime resources and assets through collaborative knowledge development, innovation and invention, and education and training. Composed of four integrated laboratory activities and three support groups, this Center has become the world’s leader in delivering new knowledge, advanced technology, and education in support of the maritime community. It uniquely integrates the fields of naval architecture, coastal and ocean engineering, physical oceanography, marine hydrodynamics and maritime security to create a trans-disciplinary enterprise that can address both the highly-specialized issues confronting each discipline, as well as the more complex, integrated issues facing natural and man-made maritime systems. The inclusion of undergraduate and graduate students in this collaborative research endeavor continues the Stevens tradition of Technogenesis® - where students, faculty, and industry jointly nurture new technologies to the benefit of society.