Alaska Tsunami Researcher Urges Education and Preparedness

February 18, 2016

If you’re enjoying a lovely day on the beach, there’s something you should do if the ground shakes, the water retreats or the ocean make a strange noise.

“Run,” said Elena Suleimani, because those are signs that a tsunami is coming. “It’s a matter of minutes. Don’t return for at least twelve hours.”

She explained why this is important during her talk, “Tsunamis: How nature keeps surprising scientists,” the third in the 2016 Science for Alaska Lecture Series that was held on Feb. 2. She is focused on telling people about the risk of and preparation for tsunamis.

As the tsunami reaches shallow coastal waters, wave height can increase rapidly, and the speed reduces. Courtesy of Elena Suleimani
As the tsunami reaches shallow coastal waters, wave height can increase rapidly, and the speed reduces. Courtesy of Elena Suleimani

“Tsunamis have a global reach. People travel,” said Suleimani, a research analyst for the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute. “Knowing what to do, rather than waiting to hear from authorities, can mean the difference between life and death.”

Sweden lost 428 people vacationing in Thailand from the tsunami created by the M9.1 Indian Ocean earthquake of 2004. They likely didn’t understand what was happening due to no warning and lack of understanding about tsunami safety, Suleimani noted.

Sadder still are the deaths of 230,000 people, most of whom lived in the coastal communities around the Indian Ocean. When the ocean strangely retreated that day, children excitedly went down to the beach to gather the stranded fish. The water returned in force minutes later.

“The force is enormous,” she said. “The water is like a wall of debris, with houses, cars, everything.”

Tsunamis are a series of traveling ocean waves generated primarily by earthquakes that occur underneath the ocean floor. They spread energy from the bottom of the ocean to its surface, but they are not noticeable atop the ocean in deep waters. They travel extremely fast in deep water but slow down when they approach the shallow coastal waters. There the tsunami wave height grows dramatically, resulting in devastating waves.

The more recent 2011 Japan earthquake and tsunami killed about 19,000 people. At the time, Japan had one of the most advanced tsunami warning and preparedness systems in the world, yet the earthquake’s resulting tsunami reached far into safety zones, killing thousands. Scientists had forecast for various scenarios, but did not include an M9 earthquake in their predictions. The size of the resulting tsunami was also a surprise.

The world’s leaders and scientists renewed a concentrated effort to understand and prepare for tsunamis. After the 2004 earthquake, the U.S. Congress created the Tsunami Warning and Education Act. Global action is now being taken to build a tsunami warning and preparedness network among Indian Ocean coastal communities.

Suleimani, who has studied the phenomenon for decades, has been working on the development of tsunami inundation maps for Alaska’s coastal communities, in partnership with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the state of Alaska.

“Alaska coastal communities are dangerously close to tsunami sources, which means that a wave will reach landfall in minutes,” she said.

Suleimani said the actions are motivated by a strong dose of humility, as it is apparent scientists must probe the unknown about tsunamis, particularly after the last two major disasters. The value of tsunami education is enormous, and it needs to be done at all levels, including folk stories and memories from elders, school lessons, and information provided by scientists and emergency officials.

Tsunami events are rare and people tend to forget the destruction.

“It may not happen again in our lifetime, but for sure it will in our children’s or grandchildren’s lives,” Suleimani said. “They need to know what to do. We want to make sure the lessons are learned.”

Source: University of Alaska Fairbanks

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