Tsunami Conferences Outline Research Needs, Concerns


CORVALLIS, Ore. – Advances and more research are needed in how to prepare for tsunamis, as well as improve hazard assessment and warning systems, experts from around the nation concluded in two recent workshops held at Oregon State University.

And with a new awareness of the threats posed by offshore subduction zones such as the one that triggered the catastrophic 2004 tsunami in Indonesia, researchers agreed that more attention should focus on the special risks facing the Pacific Northwest via an earthquake on the Cascadia Subduction Zone.

The Indonesia tsunami killed more than 200,000 people in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand and India. It was caused by geologic forces very similar to those that exist off the Pacific Northwest.

These conferences were sponsored by the National Science Foundation and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and hosted by the Hinsdale Wave Research Laboratory at OSU. About 60 national and international experts participated from those groups, along with the U.S. Geological Survey, National Research Council, and Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“We’ve been able to develop a set of recommendations that we believe can help guide government agencies and research programs to better address the threat of tsunamis in our future,” said Dan Cox, associate professor of civil engineering and director of the Wave Research Laboratory.

“There are those who seem to think that tsunamis happen very rarely and there’s nothing that can be done about them anyway, so historically they have not gotten as much attention as something like earthquake risks,” Cox said. “But the Indonesian tsunami really woke a lot of people up, and we’re now getting more interest in the things we can do with better preparation, construction standards and public education to reduce risks and build tsunami resilient communities.

“And we need to take these steps fairly quickly.”

Some research initiatives that began in the 1980s about tsunami geology, mechanisms and other issues are still valid and continuing, the researchers said, but there’s also a growing emphasis on tsunami preparedness, the need for better nearshore bathymetry data, and structural engineering improvements, said Solomon Yim, an OSU professor of civil engineering.

“In the past we often looked at the tsunami threats from thousands of miles away,” Yim said. “Now there’s clearly a better understanding of the imminent threats facing Oregon and Washington, and the need to prepare for that in the way we build and site structures, develop public safety plans and build awareness of what to do in the event of a tsunami, where people may have only minutes to react.”

Among the findings of the workshops:

  • More intensive research is needed on the impact of tsunamis on structures and the design guidelines that could help mitigate damage.
  • Risks need to be better quantified, including economic loss analysis.
  • Studies are needed of how people respond to official and natural warnings, what their evacuation behavior is really like and how appropriate behavior can be promoted.
  • Systems need to be developed to get information from the research community to the agencies and individuals that could use it, so that basic knowledge gets more effectively implemented into action.
  • Public outreach and communication programs must be strengthened.
  • Response and recovery programs should be developed that consider social and economic factors, public health, fire suppression and other key issues.
  • Warning systems for tsunamis should be improved, including forecasts of arrival times, amplitudes, period, duration, and “all clear” advisories.
  • Tsunami forecasting models and data assimilation and analysis techniques should be strengthened.

Other topics were also discussed at the conference, Yim said. There were observations that funding for tsunami research in the United States were fragmented, and could benefit from more coordinated programs of study similar to that which exists for earthquake research.

Benchmarks are also needed, researchers suggested, for such things as inundation models or ocean wave run-up, so that projections will be more accurate and consistent.

During the workshops, national experts also toured and learned more about the capabilities of the tsunami wave basin at OSU, a sophisticated research facility that’s part of the Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation set up by the National Science Foundation.

A final report from the workshops is expected in late September.