BY MALIA ZIMMERMAN – Hawaii residents and visitors scrambled on Saturday night after receiving less than three hours notice to evacuate flood zones and shorelines, because a tsunami would hit the state at 10:28 p.m.
Tsunami waves, 10 to 12 minutes apart, did hit Hawaii, beginning at that precise time, but most waves were under 1.5 feet, and Molokai was the only island to report minor damage to property on the shoreline.
Gerard Fryer, a senior geophysicist with the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, the federal agency responsible for tracking tsunamis, said Hawaii should have probably gone on advisory status rather than issuing a warning, which would have meant keeping people away from shorelines, but no mandatory evacuations would have been ordered.
There was some human error involved in the assessment, primarily because of a lack of tracking instruments placed from Canada to Hawaii, and also because of the way scientists interpreted the data.
Geophysicists in Alaska and Hawaii rely on data from DARTS (Deep-ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunamis (DART®) stations), which are sometimes as much as 3 miles below sea level. The darts connect to buoys, which float on the ocean surface. Those buoys transmit from the DARTs to satellites and back to the tsunami centers in Hawaii and Alaska.
But there are just 40 buoys providing data to Hawaii, and none for more than 2,000 miles between the mainland U.S. and Hawaii, largely because it is extremely rare for a tsunami to be generated from Canada.
Most often, tsunamis that hit Hawaii are generated from the Republic of Chile, Japan or the Galápagos Islands. Fryer said the most dangerous tsunamis come from the Galápagos Islands, so many of the so-called “assets” or DARTs are directed that way.
Each DART system costs about $100,000, but the initial investment must be backed with heavy maintenance. Each DART relies on batteries and the batteries are located 3 miles below sea level.
The DART turns on automatically about every 6 hours, and transmit information to the buoys and satellites above. But the activity is extremely draining, and even more so when the devices remain on to track tsunami waves. Every year, crews must travel a far distance to change the batteries in the DARTs, which is an expensive and time-consuming process. Each station can take up to 6 hours to maintain, because the batteries are located so far below sea level.
“The data is wonderful, and it easy to interpret data, not all complicated (from the DARTs),” Fryer said, but he highlighted a problem they’ve encountered.
The DARTs are subjected to severe weather storms or are sometimes damaged by fisherman who hook their nets to the buoys to catch fish. That can cause the buoys to break away from their moorings and float away. The DARTs can also lose power, causing problems for scientists who rely on their data.
“At any given time, about 25 percent are down, and they are awful expensive to maintain,” Fryer said of the DART systems.
He suggests “there may be something better” using a combination of high-tech and low-tech solutions.
Rather than investing in more DARTs that are difficult and costly to maintain, Fryer suggests three other options: Using satellites to monitor the ocean’s surface height and currents; measuring the tsunami waves from nearby land using high frequency radars in radar stations along the coast; and installing low tech tide gages along the shorelines.
The satellites are already in orbit. The radars could be installed for about $50,000 a piece, about half of what a DART units costs. The low-tech tide gages, which are used in places like Tonga, would be even less of an investment. There would also be little maintenance required, Fryer said.
The question is whether the government is ready for new solutions or will continue to rely on old ones and how that will impact Hawaii and other areas prone to tsunamis. After all, there have been three tsunamis to hit Hawaii shores in the last three years.
In addition, the funding of the Pacific Tsunami Warning system has become a political and campaign issue.
Earlier this year, Congresswoman Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, opposed bipartisan House legislation to fully fund the Tsunami Warning Network for FY 2013. The system was facing $4.5 million in cuts to its maintenance schedule as well as education related efforts. The House did reinstated full funding for the National Tsunami Hazard Mitigation Program and DART buoy network maintenance for FY 2013, without Hirono’s support.
Hirono did not respond to Lingle’s press release or explain her vote.
Hirono is a candidate for U.S. Senate, and her opponent, former Gov. Linda Lingle, was critical of Hirono’s decision.
“Hirono voted against the best interest of our state – a state in a Tsunami high-risk zone – and against one of our most important life-saving tools, by voting against fully funding the Tsunami Warning Network,” said Former Director of Hawaii Civil Defense and Linda Lingle Campaign Manager Bob Lee said in September press release. He said in sharp contrast, Lingle “vastly improved its state civil defense operations” when she was governor.
Far away from the political battle brewing in Hawaii and the nation’s capitol, scientists at the tsunami warning centers in Alaska and Hawaii hope for the tools and personnel they need to keep people across the Pacific safe.
They have a number of innovative partnerships with other island nations and countries to monitor the seas, and look forward to some day adding additional personnel so they can have three rather than two people on duty at all times and have more help during a crisis.
If Fryer gets his way, the country would spend less money on buying and maintaining new DART systems and instead invest in systems that are less expensive and easier to maintain and bring more personnel on board to help with the tracking.