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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

U.S. to upgrade warning system

Juliet Eilperin Washington Post

WASHINGTON – The administration will spend $37.5 million over the next three years to expand the nation’s tsunami detection and warning system, U.S. officials said Friday, so the nation will be able to monitor underwater activity threatening any of its coasts by mid-2007.

The move, which comes on the heels of last month’s Indian Ocean tsunami that killed more than 157,000 people, would double America’s tsunami detection capacity by installing 32 new deep-sea buoys in the Atlantic, the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific. The government would also devote millions to buy nearly 40 sea-level monitoring and tide gauge stations and to upgrade 20 seismometers, which detect earthquakes.

“The world’s attention has been focused on the vulnerability of people who live on the edge of oceans, and we have a responsibility to respond to their need,” said John Marburger III, President Bush’s top science adviser, at a news conference. Marburger said U.S. officials are now pursuing a tsunami warning system “that might have taken years to roll out” without the recent devastation in South Asia.

Tsunamis are long waves that can be sparked by any rapid, large-scale underwater disturbance, such as an earthquake, landslide or volcano, and can grow to enormous size when they reach shore.

The United States has six pressure sensors on the ocean floor off the West Coast, which detect real-time changes caused by deep-water tsunamis and send an acoustic signal to a deep-water surface buoy that transmits the signal via satellite to scientists at tsunami warning centers in Hawaii and Alaska. Three of the six pressure sensors aren’t working and await repair.

The last major tsunami to hit the U.S. mainland occurred in 1964 during an Alaskan earthquake, killing 110 people in Alaska, California and Oregon.

Roughly 85 percent of tsunamis occur in the Pacific, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, because of the large number of shifting tectonic plants that push against one another under the sea. The pressure builds up until it is released abruptly in an earthquake, which can displace enormous amounts of water.

Robert Weller, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, who monitors ocean observing systems, said the accelerated program “seems to make a lot of sense,” because if a substandard program generates too many false alarms, “the public’s not going to believe you” if the real thing comes along.