August 20th, 2007 11:48 EST
Tsunami Early Warning System Taking Shape in the Caribbean
This is the second in a series of articles about U.S. contributions to a global early warning system for tsunamis and other hazards.
Washington – An early warning system for tsunamis is taking shape in the Caribbean region, building on the island nations’ long experience in dealing with hurricanes, storm surge, volcanic eruptions and mudslides.
As Hurricane Dean, the first of the Atlantic season, raged through the Caribbean August 20, leaving nine people dead in its wake among the region's 7,000 islands, islets, reefs and cays, experts from a handful of countries are putting their own experience and technology to work to strengthen the region against a future tsunami.
The collaboration began in 2005, after the UNESCO Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) created a framework for developing regional tsunami early warning systems in the Indian Ocean, the Caribbean and the Mediterranean.
A month later, the U.S. Agency for International Development Office of Foreign Development Assistance (OFDA) and its Caribbean intergovernmental counterpart, the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Response Agency (CDERA), brought key parties together in Barbados to discuss building a tsunami warning system.
At the meeting were experts from the Seismic Research Unit at the University of the West Indies-St. Augustine, Trinidad and Tobago; the University of Puerto Rico-Mayaguez; the Montserrat (a British territory) Volcano Observatory, Meteo-France at Guadeloupe and Martinique; and others.
The group concluded, said OFDA Regional Adviser Julie Leonard during an August 14 USINFO interview, "that whatever is created in the Caribbean should not be a stand-alone [system] but should be able to incorporate other coastal hazards."
STRENGTHENING A SYSTEM
Because the Caribbean and the United States are close neighbors that share residents, tourists and interests in shipping, trade, oil and gas, insurance and land investment, one of the best things the United States can do to help the Caribbean monitor tsunamis is bolster its own early warning system. (See related article.)
In 2006, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) installed five new deep-ocean assessment and reporting of tsunami (DART) buoy stations, called tsunameters, off the U.S. East and Gulf coasts and the Caribbean.
"These buoys are a first line of defense in providing citizens of the Atlantic, Caribbean and Gulf regions with a comprehensive tsunami warning system," NOAA Administrator Conrad Lautenbacher said at the time.
Until the Caribbean has a working system, NOAA, along with the Japan Meteorological Agency, is providing 24-hour interim watch services from its Pacific Tsunami Warning Center (PTWC) in Hawaii. (See related article.)
Today, the NOAA network includes 28 DART stations and will grow to 39 by spring 2008 -- 32 in the Pacific, seven in the Atlantic Basin.
NOAA also has increased the number of real-time sea-level stations in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, developed inundation (flooding) models for two at-risk communities in Puerto Rico, expanded coastal bathymetric (the study of underwater depth) mapping and modeling, provided decision and analysis tools to regional institutions and, with USGS, is installing seismic stations in neighboring countries.
In the Caribbean, with local and international partners and funding approved by Congress in 2005, OFDA, NOAA, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and other agencies have been lending expertise and technology to the Caribbean effort.
According to NOAA Tsunami Program Manager David Green, five seismic stations -- in Grenada, Panama, Honduras, Barbados and the Dominican Republic -- are installed and streaming data to the USGS National Earthquake Information Center in Colorado and NOAA's tsunami warning centers in Hawaii and Alaska.
Stations will be installed in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and Barbuda, part of the nation of Antigua and Barbuda, in September, and in Jamaica and Grand Turk, legislative seat of Turks and Caicos Islands, in November.
Before 2005, Green said, "we had some seismic information but it was too sparse. The best we could do until recently was maybe to give people a heads up if there was an earthquake. We didn't know enough to give a [tsunami] warning."
The USGS also "trained two people in each country on the maintenance and operation of our stations," said Jean Weaver, USGS regional specialist for the Americas, "and in conjunction with UNESCO/IOC, OFDA and the University of the West Indies Seismic Research Unit, held a regional workshop on tsunamis at the end of June."
Seismologist Walter Mooney, lead coordinator for the USGS Indian Ocean tsunami warning system program, organized the training course.
"We had 43 participants from 20 countries," he said during an August 16 USINFO interview, "and gave six days of training in how the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center and the Japanese Meteorological Agency disseminate warnings."
NOAA also is working with international partners and organizations to help update and strengthen Caribbean ocean observations, data and information delivery, dissemination and notification systems and the region's communications and information technology infrastructure.
Other countries involved in the region's tsunami and coastal hazards mitigation effort include Spain, Norway, Venezuela, France, Russia and the United Kingdom.
In one of the next steps, Leonard said, OFDA and CDERA will begin to develop protocols to disseminate tsunami warnings at the national level.
"At this point,” she said, “the work that remains to be done is getting the warning from the [national warning center] out to the community. We have to look at the flow of information, establish the protocols and procedures," and determine the best way to alert the population.
More information about the tsunami warning system for the Caribbean and adjacent regions is available on the IOC Web site.
Additional information about the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center is available on the NOAA Web site.
See also “Tsunami, Earthquake Detection Improved Since 2004 Disaster.”
(USINFO is produced by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)