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Outages Spread in Critical Tsunami Warning System
One-Third of Deep Ocean Stations Are “Dead”; Funding Woes May Preclude Fixes
WASHINGTON - March 4 - Our principal ocean-based tsunami warning system is suffering from large dead zones that compromise its effectiveness, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). New funding limits imposed by sequestration and unresolved budget strains inside of National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) may result in even more system outages.
NOAA completed its Deep Ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunamis (DART) network of 39 anchored buoy stations covering the Pacific, Atlantic, Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico in 2008. NOAA claims the “DART network serves as the cornerstone of the U.S. tsunami warning system” yet more than one in three stations are not functioning. The average dead period for non-reporting DART stations exceeds 6 months. Other stations are reporting sporadic data that is not useable, say NOAA scientists.
Significantly, one area with a big coverage gap is the Kuril Trench, off the Pacific coast of Russia, part of the “Ring of Fire” named for its active tectonic subduction zones which generate large tsunamigenic earthquakes. Five of the DART buoys closest to the Kuril Trench are non-responsive.
Each DART is supposed to send acoustic signals from a transmitter anchored on the sea floor to a surface buoy. As a tsunami moves across the ocean, the DART reports bottom pressure changes in the entire column of water above. These open ocean readings provide NOAA’s Tsunami Warning Centers with “data critical to real-time forecast” for “early detection of tsunamis” to enable more accurate watches, warnings and, if needed, evacuations, according to NOAA.
In the past decade, tsunamis have killed more people than almost every other natural hazard combined. Since 1900, more than 100 tsunamis have hit Pacific U.S. states and territories. Yet today, less than one in seven at-risk American communities is “adequately prepared for a tsunami,” according to official estimates obtained by PEER. Of the 767 “tsunami at-risk communities” NOAA classifies only 100 communities as “TsunamiReady,” a status denoting sufficient evacuation plans, emergency operations support, sirens, signage and other measures to mitigate tsunami losses.
“The DART network is part of a tsunami public safety net that is fraying,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “In a tsunami, every moment of advance warning is crucial.”
One year ago, NOAA proposed to cut back on DART maintenance, a step that would result in even more outages. It is expensive to maintain buoys in remote rough seas. Congress reversed those planned cuts.
This year however, NOAA, like other federal agencies, is experiencing stiff across-the-board cuts. Besides the sequestration, NOAA has yet to sort out a structural budget deficit as large as $100 million plaguing its National Weather Service and leading to several high-level resignations.
“Early detection of tsunamis is a core federal function which should not be a political football,” Ruch added. “Hopefully, it will not take another tragedy for us to reinvest in tsunami readiness.”