Dr. Eddie Bernard is an Affiliate Professor at the University of Washington and Scientist Emeritus for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) / Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory (PMEL). He retired from Director of PMEL in 2010, after 40 years of NOAA service, where he directed a broad range of oceanographic research programs including ocean climate dynamics, fisheries oceanography, El Niño forecasts, tsunamis, and underwater volcanoes. He served as Director of NOAA’s Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Honolulu for 3 years, which influenced his research toward public safety. Following the 1993 Sea of Japan tsunami, he led the U.S. team that surveyed the damage caused by the tsunami. Bernard served as founding Chairman of the National Tsunami Hazard Mitigation Program, a joint Federal/State effort, and as Chairman of the International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics’ Tsunami Commission. He is a member of the American Geophysical Union, the American Meteorological Society, and the Oceanography Society. Dr. Bernard received numerous honors and awards for outstanding performance in NOAA including the Department of Commerce Gold Medal in 2004 and 2005, the Presidential Meritorious Rank Award in 1993 from President William J. Clinton, and the Presidential Meritorious Rank Award again in 2002 from President George W. Bush. In 2008, Dr. Bernard was awarded the Service to America Medal, sponsored by the Partnership for Public Service, for his leadership in creating a tsunami forecasting capability and raising the public’s awareness of the tsunami hazard. In October 2010, he was awarded the Presidential Meritorious Rank Award by President Barack Obama in recognition of Dr. Bernard’s transformation of three long-term PMEL research programs in tsunami warning and education, ocean acidification, and ocean exploration into Congressional authorization laws. Bernard received a Ph.D. and M.S. in physical oceanography at Texas A&M, and a B.S. in physics from Lamar University.
Tsunamis are ocean waves initiated by any large-scale disturbance of the sea surface. Earthquakes, earthquake effects like slumps, landslides, and secondary faulting, explosive volcanoes, meteorological events, and asteroid impacts, can produce such disturbances. Once the sea surface is disturbed, gravity restores mean sea level by converting the energy of the local sea surface displacement into gravity waves. These gravity waves have lengths that are much longer than the ocean depth. Such long waves can propagate across ocean basins for several hours with negligible frictional loss at speeds exceeding 700 km/hour. Propagating across the continental margin, these waves amplify inversely proportional to the shoaling bottom and can reach amplitudes of meters as they approach the coastline. At the coastline these waves can break into a turbulent mass of fluid. Tsunami can repeatedly inundate coastal regions for hours while destroying lives and property several kilometers inland.
The horrific December 26, 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which killed over 230,000 people and displaced 1.7 million across 14 countries, stimulated governments of the world into addressing tsunami hazards. Many nations in the Indian Ocean did not even recognize the word “tsunami” and none had tsunami preparedness programs in place. Ignorance of the natural signs of a tsunami’s presence led to inappropriate actions and decisions by nations, population centers, and tourist destinations. The world’s response to this terrible natural disaster was an unprecedented $13.5B in international aid, including $5.5B from the general public in developed nations. The 2004 tsunami, one of the top ten deadliest natural disasters the world has recorded, will probably be best remembered for the global outpouring of help to the innocent victims of this tragedy.
The U.S. response was generous, swift, and effective. In total, the United States government spent about $1.0 billion for a tsunami that killed 31 U.S. citizens and did not damage any U.S. coastline. The U.S. military spent about 25% of this amount by dispatching an aircraft carrier, a hospital ship, and 24 support ships to aid in rescue and relief activities using a sea-based operation called UNIFIED ASSISTANCE. The State Department received about 66% of the funds for reconstruction activity in India, Indonesia, Maldives, Sri Lanka, and Thailand. Of the State Department amount, about $14M (0.1%) was spent on contributing to the establishment of an Indian Ocean tsunami warning system. The Departments of Commerce (through NOAA) and Interior (through the United States Geological Survey-USGS) received $39M (0.4%) to strengthen the existing U.S. tsunami warning system.
Following the response, relief, and recovery efforts, the U.S. Congress passed the Tsunami Warning and Education Act (Public Law 109-424) as an extension of the efforts of the National Tsunami Hazard Mitigation Program (NTHMP) – a State/Federal partnership to reduce tsunami hazards to U.S. coastlines founded in 1997. The Act, introduced by Senator Inouye and passed on December 20, 2006, has four elements: tsunami warning, education, research, and international cooperation. The international coordination element was included to support the United Nation’s effort to standardize a global tsunami warning system comprised of regional warning centers in the Indian, Atlantic, and Pacific Oceans, and the Caribbean and Mediterranean Seas. By 2011, over 50 standard deep ocean tsunami detectors had been deployed and operated by the U.S., Australia, India, Chile, Russia, and Thailand. Data from these detectors, necessary to forecast tsunami coastal impacts, are freely shared with all nations. In contrast, only 3 deep ocean tsunami detectors were operational in the U.S. when the 2004 tsunami struck.
One provision of the Act was a National Academy of Science (NAS) external review of “the tsunami detection, forecast, and warning program established under this Act to assess further modernization and coverage needs, as well as long-term operational reliability issues, taking into account measures implemented under this Act.” Destructive tsunamis in Samoa in September 2009 and Chile in March 2010 provided opportunities to review the performance of the tsunami warning program. The NAS assigned the tsunami program review to the National Research Council’s Ocean Studies Board, which released a report entitled “Tsunami Warning and Preparedness: An Assessment of the U.S. Tsunami Program and the Nation’s Preparedness Efforts” in December 2010. The report abstract reads:
“The nation’s ability to detect and forecast tsunamis has improved since the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, but current efforts are still not sufficient to meet challenges posed by tsunamis generated near land, which leave little time for warning. This National Research Council report reviews progress made to strengthen the nation’s tsunami warning and preparation systems, and identifies ways to further improve tsunami preparation efforts. Minimizing future losses of lives and property caused by tsunamis will require persistent progress across the broad spectrum of efforts reviewed in this report: risk assessment, public education, government coordination, detection and forecasting, and warning- center operations.”
Four months following the release of the Ocean Studies Board ‘s report, the March 11, 2011 Japanese tsunami killed about 20,000 people and caused over $300B in economic loss to Japan. Preliminary findings indicate that Japan, the most tsunami prepared nation in the world, had underestimated tsunami impacts for evacuation planning and coastal structures design. The powerful tsunami was recorded at 30 deep ocean tsunami detector stations. Data from four of these detectors near Japan were used to accurately forecast tsunami flooding for Kahului, Hawaii six hours before the tsunami struck Hawaii. An evacuation of Hawaii was correctly called, saving lives from drowning.
In light of Japan’s underestimation of the tsunami hazard, the U.S. should pledge to become a more tsunami resilient nation through the reauthorization of the Tsunami Act. Using the present elements of the Act:
- Research: Research should lead to scientifically accepted standards for tsunami forecast products, tsunami hazard mitigation projects, and tsunami education. Research should also lead to the containment of tsunami warning, mitigation, and education costs by the application of new and/or improved technology. Standards and cost containment efforts should be maintained and overseen by credible research organizations.
- Education: Apply standardized educational programs to reduce public confusion. Conduct benefit/cost analysis before initiating community based mitigation projects.
- Warning: Disseminate standardized graphical flooding products directly to the public to reduce public confusion. Develop a set of warning products for ports and harbors to minimize disruption to port operations.
- International Cooperation: Apply U.S. technical standards to all warning systems in the world to ensure interoperability and standardization among global citizens.
Establish an external review processes to ensure standards are being properly developed and maintained.