Scientists Cleverly Use Cargo Ships For New Tsunami Warning System

The public-private partnership is making waves for all the right reasons.

Sometimes public-private partnerships make so much sense you wonder why they didn't happen sooner.

When it comes to understanding and predicting tsunamis, a long-standing difficulty has been collecting real-time data from the deep ocean. While some deep-ocean sensors are out there, there aren't many and they're expensive, limiting scientists' ability to detect tsunamis and accurately assess their threats.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, whose job it is to provide tsunami warnings, has found a fix by teaming up with folks already out there in the deep ocean all the time: commercial shipping companies.


Researchers at the University of Hawaii Manoa, backed by NOAA, have begun equipping active cargo ships with tsunami sensors, providing much-needed real-time data.

A huge 2011 earthquake in Tohoku, Japan, and a 2012 fault slip at Queen Charlotte Islands, Canada, "highlighted weaknesses in our understanding of earthquake and tsunami hazards and emphasized the need for more densely-spaced observing capabilities,” James Foster, lead investigator for the project, said in a statement.

A tsunami caused by the Japan quake killed thousands and caused massive damage, including a nuclear power plant meltdown. The Canadian quake generated a tsunami that was far less powerful than predicted.

By using systems and satellite communications, the newly outfitted ships form a network of open ocean tide gauges. In the deep ocean, a tsunami wave may only be a few inches high. But with the additional data points, researchers will be able to generate more accurate predictions and models -- and at a fraction of the price of a network of fixed sensors.

“Our approach offers a new, cost-effective way of acquiring many more observations to augment the current detection networks,” co-investigator Todd Ericksen said in the statement.

The aftermath of a tsunami in Coquimbo, Chile, after an 8.3-magnitude earthquake struck on September 17, 2015.
The aftermath of a tsunami in Coquimbo, Chile, after an 8.3-magnitude earthquake struck on September 17, 2015.
MARTIN BERNETTI via Getty Images

The UH researchers stumbled onto the innovative method in 2010, when a tsunami generated by the magnitude 8.8 earthquake in Maule, Chile, passed one of their research vessels. Their onboard equipment accurately recorded the tsunami signal, leading to the idea for the current project.

The new technology has so far been installed on 10 ships. Researchers are working with Matson, Maersk Line and the World Ocean Council to develop a version that can be deployed on a much greater number of ships.

“Our new ship-based detection network is the first step towards the creation of the dense global observing network needed to support the efforts of tsunami warning centers to provide the best possible predictions of tsunami hazard to coastal communities,” Foster said.

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