Commercial ships travel across most of the globe and could provide better warnings for potentially deadly tsunamis, according to a study published May 5 by scientists at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Pacific Tsunami Warning Center.
James Foster, lead author and assistant researcher at UH Mānoa’s School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology (SOEST), and colleagues were able to detect and measure the properties of the tsunami generated by the magnitude 8.8 earthquake in Maule, Chile (February 2010), on the research vessel Kilo Moana, which was on its way from Hawaiʻi to Guam at the time of the tsunami, and was equipped with geodetic GPS system recording data as the tsunami passed by.
Careful analysis of this data showed that the researchers were able to detect changes in the sea-surface height very similar to the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center predictions. “Our discovery indicates that the vast fleet of commercial ships traveling the ocean each day could become a network of accurate tsunami sensors,” Foster said.
Commercial shipping lines run all around the Pacific basin and provide great coverage globally around tsunamigenic regions (areas of the Earth that produced tsunamis). “If we could equip some fraction of the shipping fleet with high-accuracy GPS and satellite communications, we could construct a dense, low-cost tsunami sensing network that would improve our detection and predictions of tsunamis—saving lives and money,” Foster commented.
Foster and fellow SOEST researchers plan to deploy a demonstration system, which will stream GPS data from one or two ships, thus generating accurate real-time heights and confirming that this approach can achieve the accuracy needed for tsunami detection.