“Tsunamis can neither be prevented nor precisely predicted yet,” says site initiator Dr. Jian Lin, a WHOI geologist actively involved in tsunami research and a member of a U.S. national committee on tsunami warning and preparedness. “But people educated about tsunami warning signs can save their own lives and the lives of others.”
Tsunami is the Japanese word for “harbor wave,” and is the term used when giant undersea earthquakes, landslides or volcanic eruptions generate a sudden motion of ocean water that results in a series of large waves. In the open ocean, these waves can travel as fast as 500 miles per hour — the same speed as a jet plane. They slow and grow in height as the waves near the coast; a tsunami can quickly engulf vulnerable coastal regions resulting in widespread destruction and death.
The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, in which 240,000 lives were lost, serves as a reminder of how devastating these events can be. While tsunamis are not particularly rare — 25 noticeable ones have occurred in the last century in the Pacific Ocean, Indian Ocean, Caribbean, and Mediterranean — they are rare enough to escape the collective consciousness, so that people do not recognize them or know what to do when they occur.
“Despite the tremendous loss of life that tsunamis cause,” says Lin, “until now, the public worldwide — including school kids — had a hard time finding user-friendly and interactive Web sites to educate them on what tsunamis are, the warning signs of an approaching tsunami, and what to do if they see a warning sign.”
In September 2009 more than 180 people were killed by the Samoa tsunami. The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii issued a warning 15 minutes after a powerful undersea earthquake, but most people of the Samoan Islands did not receive the warning before the waves hit.
“Some lives could definitely have been saved if everyone living on or visiting the Samoan Islands knew to run to the high ground when they first felt ground shaking or saw the ocean behaving strangely,” says Lin.
The new Web site, http://www.whoi.edu/home/interactive/tsunami/, is intended to be a resource for both residents and visitors to coastal zones of the U.S. and the rest of the world, as well as an educational tool for students from the middle-school level and up.
Using interactive graphics and animations, the site covers how to prepare for a tsunami, how to respond should you see one approach, and what to do in the aftermath. It includes stories from survivors of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, amateur video, and even includes a sound file of the undersea earthquake that caused the 2004 tsunami. The site also explores the research and technology currently being used to study and watch for tsunamis and includes video interviews with scientists describing their work.
“This site is an invaluable source for educating the public and providing outreach to at-risk coastal communities,” says Dwayne Meadows of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Meadows, who shares his own tale of survival from the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami on the site, serves as NOAA's first environmental hazards representative on the new U.S. government Civilian Response Corps.
“We’ve taken the lessons learned from the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and applied that to the study of other earthquakes and tsunamis,” adds Lin. “Scientists are making progress. But public education is still the most important means to saving lives.”
This project received funding from the WHOI Coastal Ocean Institute.
The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution is a private, independent organization in Falmouth, Mass., dedicated to marine research, engineering, and higher education. Established in 1930 on a recommendation from the National Academy of Sciences, its primary mission is to understand the oceans and their interaction with the Earth as a whole, and to communicate a basic understanding of the oceans’ role in the changing global environment.
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