UH researcher attempts to fill gaps in tsunami buoy system

Published  12:19 AM HST Nov 28, 2012
DART Buoy Rough Seas
HONOLULU -

Ten centimeters may not seem like much, but to Michael Foster, an assistant researcher at the UH Manoa School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology, it meant a foray into groundbreaking research on the measurement of tsunami waves in the open ocean.

When an 8.8 magnitude earthquake struck Maule, Chile in February of 2010, Foster and his colleagues measured the subsequent tsunami wave by using a geodetic GPS device on board the UH research vessel Kilo Moana, which was 370 miles west of Oahu on its way to Guam.

"So, we were able to show that for a ship in the open ocean, we can detect even a very small, ten centimeter high tsunami," said Foster.   

Foster believes the deployment of advanced GPS devices on board cargo ships could provide more accurate tsunami data in the aftermath of powerful earthquakes.

"There's this vast number of potential platforms to install these GPS systems that are continuously going around the globe," explains Foster, "and actually, the main shipping lines are very close to a lot of the main sources of tsunamis.

Foster's research comes at a time when the Obama administration is considering a $1 million funding cut to the tsunami warning system, which relies on 39 deep-ocean buoys to transmit data on seismic events throughout the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

Michael Angove, acting director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's tsunami program, said if funding cuts go through Congress, NOAA would have to become more resourceful in how it services its array of DART (Deep-ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunamis) buoys.

"We try to maintain a very high percentage of buoy availability," Angove told KITV4. "Any cut in that sort of maintenance means we just have to be really kind of creative, sometimes, in how we schedule ship time and resources to be able to get out there."

In a letter to House Budget Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan dated March 15, Hawaii Rep. Colleen Hanabusa urged funding cuts to the tsunami warning program be restored.  Hanabusa asked for an additional $4.6 million for the National Weather Service, of which $1 million would be set aside specifically for DART buoy maintenance.  

It costs NOAA upwards of $20,000 per day to fund buoy servicing expeditions, and the long voyages can only be performed during certain times of the year when the weather cooperates.

That's why Foster is excited about possibly supplementing the DART system with shipboard data. In fact, Foster will soon deploy GPS devices on two Matson, Inc. cargo ships that will sail between Honolulu and the West Coast.

"We'll test whether the same system that we used to detect the Chile tsunami can actually operate effectively in real time," said Foster.

If no tsunami is generated during the two years of the pilot project, Foster and his team will generate computer models to analyze the accuracy of their data.

"We'll have some predictions made up from previous events and we'll see whether we can show that we're not producing false positive warnings," said Foster. "Just checking that we have the actual accuracy to be useful."

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