Sea change for tsunami alert systems thanks to University of Oregon partnership

SOURCE: Olagondronk / AFP
The floating mosque in Palu, Indonesia which was hit by the earthquake and tsunami on September 28, 2018 - The magnitude 7.5 quake and a subsequent tsunami razed swathes of the city on Sulawesi island on September 28, killing some 4,340 people.

By U2B Staff 

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Tsunamis have been behind some of the worst natural disasters in a generation, in some cases, claiming the lives of hundreds of thousands of people within a matter of minutes. For many areas of the world, they remain a constant source of fear, with populations hyperaware of any minor shudders in the Earth’s crust.

Caused by earthquakes under the ocean floor, they are particularly prevalent in areas on the boundaries of the planet’s tectonic plates. Southeast Asia’s Indonesia has been particularly badly hit in 2019, with earthquakes with a magnitude of 5.0 or lower occurring almost daily along the archipelago.

Thankfully, very few of these have the right conditions to form a tsunami – but that doesn’t mean it never happens. In September 2018, a 7.5 magnitude quake off the coast of Sulawesi island caused a devastating tsunami that claimed more than 4,300 lives in the city of Palu.

tsunami warning
A building stands amid the debris of a flattened fishing village in Lere subdistrict in Palu, Indonesia’s Central Sulawesi on October 3, 2018, after an earthquake and tsunami hit the area on September 28. Source: Adek Berry / AFP

What made this instance even more devastating was the failure of the tsunami warning system when they needed it the most.

Palu will hopefully be the last community this tragedy happens to, as the University of Oregon (UO), along with the University of Washington, is working on a new system that will give people time to react to an oncoming wave.

Armed with a US$800,000 grant from NASA, the university is working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to deliver a tsunami warning within five minutes of an earthquake.


Researchers are currently working in the Cascadia subduction zone, a plate boundary that covers a 600-mile-long coastal stretch from Northern California to British Columbia, but the aim is to distribute the system worldwide. The team is aiming to provide forecasts accurate enough for the NOAA to be able to meet the five-minute time limit with precise information of incoming wave sizes at particular locations.

“Our goal is to empower NOAA to be able to say more quickly the size of an earthquake and the expected tsunami it may generate in selected locations,” said project leader Diego Melgar, a UO professor in the Department of Earth Sciences.

tsunami warning
People walk along a damaged road in Palu, Indonesia’s Central Sulawesi on October 1, 2018. Source: Adek Berry / AFP

Newly developed algorithms are being incorporated into some 500 GPS monitoring sites along Cascadia. The data collected is then being analysed back at UO where postdoctoral scholar Amy Williamson is running thousands of simulations of strong earthquakes and the likely tidal outcome.

“The technological approach we are using represents a sea change for NOAA,” Melgar said. “Amy is doing a lot of testing to show how it would work in an operational sense. What she is doing, in close collaboration with NOAA, is helping us understand how this approach may fit into the agency’s standard operating procedures.”

The project is building on UO’s work on upgrading the new ShakeAlert earthquake warning system. While it doesn’t predict earthquakes, the system is able to send text messages to residents warning them when the tremors will reach them after the earthquake has started.

Teaming up with six other West coast universities, they all know the importance their research can have on saving lives in this volatile area of the world.