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Tsunami Monitoring Technology Hits the Mark in Chile

An international tsunami monitoring system worked perfectly in the wake of Tuesday's earthquake in Chile, reducing the potential for panic.
Image: Tsunami forecast
A computer graphic shows projected tsunami wave height, with red colors indicating highest waves.PMEL / NOAA

A beefed-up tsunami monitoring and prediction system performed with flying colors in the wake of Tuesday's magnitude-8.2 earthquake in Chile, researchers reported on the morning after.

The only hitch in the system was human nature.

"It's always nice to see that the forecast worked," said Vasily Titov, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Center for Tsunami Research in Seattle.

Image: Tsunami forecast
A computer graphic shows projected tsunami wave height, with red colors indicating highest waves.PMEL / NOAA

More than 12 hours after the earthquake, the tsunami waves swept harmlessly past Hawaii at a height of 20 inches (50 centimeters) — right in line with the computer model's predictions.

Since the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake, nations around the Pacific Ocean's seismically active "Ring of Fire" have spent billions to upgrade their warning systems. Today, a network of more than 60 deep-water sensors and attached buoys monitor the ocean for shifts in wave height. Ten years ago, there were just six such sensors, "and only half of them were working," Titov said.

The sea-level readings transmitted back to tsunami warning centers are analyzed using increasingly sophisticated forecast models. Experts as well as regular Internet users flocked to watch sea-level readings jump in real time on the Web.

Image: Sea level
This graphic shows sea level measurements at a gauge at Iquique, Chile, before and after Tuesday's earthquake.VLIZ / UNESCO / IOC

Titov said tsunami projections were available half an hour after the quake hit. That lag time is far less than it was 10 years ago, when it took hours or days to gauge the effect of a seismic event. But it's still wasn't good enough to provide accurate information for the Chileans closest to the epicenter.

"The improvement we need to work on is to make this forecast faster," Titov said.

On the Chilean coast, traffic jams slowed down the evacuation of potential tsunami zones — which illustrated why experts usually advise fleeing by foot if possible.

"People need to have a plan to not use a vehicle," said Jody Bourgeois, a geologist at the University of Washington. Knowing the recommended evacuation plan — for example, whether to head for higher ground or the higher floors of a nearby building — is key to tsunami preparedness. Bourgeois also said it's essential not to panic, which is the best advice for Tsunami Awareness Month.

"That's why accurate forecasting is important," she said, 'because people panicking can be worse than some of the other things that can happen."