After acknowledging that three of its six tsunami-detecting buoys have been broken for months, the U.S. government promised Friday to build a new detection system that covers the whole Pacific basin — including the B.C. coast — as well as the Caribbean and part of the Atlantic Ocean.
The $37.5-million US system, which will include 32 new high-tech buoys, “will provide the United States with nearly 100-per-cent detection capability for a coastal tsunami, allowing response within minutes,” the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) said in Washington, D.C.
It will also be a step toward a global tsunami warning system.
The U.S. buoys provide Canada, which does not have its own buoys, with information needed to issue or cancel tsunami warnings for the B.C. coast.
Officials said there was no danger of an undetected tsunami hitting the North American coast, since the three functional buoys and older networks of tide gauges and land-based sensors would have picked up the wave.
But without data from all six buoys, it would have been harder for scientists to calculate where the waves were headed, how big they would be when they hit the coast and at what point tsunami warnings could safely be cancelled, Paul Whitmore, chief scientist for the West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning System in Palmer, Alaska, told the Seattle Times newspaper.
“We are still a fully functional warning system, even without the buoys,” Whitmore said.
“The impact of those buoys being out is that we have less data upon which to cancel or expand warnings.”
The buoy nearest B.C., off the Washington coast, stopped working in November but is being repaired and will likely be back in operation soon. The other two, in the North Pacific, have been out of commission for months and probably won’t be fixed until spring because of rough weather.
The 32 new buoys will ring the Pacific basin from offshore Chile, up the west coast of North America, across the North Pacific and down its eastern edge as far south as New Zealand. Several will be placed in the Atlantic and the Caribbean, where there is also a danger of a giant tsunami-causing earthquake.
Once in place, they will “provide tsunami warnings for regions bordering half of the world’s oceans,” the OSTP said.
The buoys are equipped with sensors that hang nearly to the ocean floor and detect ripples that indicate a tsunami is starting. The data is then relayed to satellites.
They are also a step in “planning and implementing a global observation system and a global tsunami warning system, which will ultimately include the Indian Ocean,” said presidential science adviser John Marburger.
Australian scientists are designing an Indian Ocean warning system that could be built within a year at a cost of about $20 million US.
Both would be part of a Global Earth
Observation System of Systems or GEOSS, an international effort that was in the planning stages well before the Boxing Day earthquake triggered a deadly tsunami in the Indian Ocean. GEOSS includes 54 participating nations and an implementation plan is expected to be adopted at a summit in Brussels in February.