Changes, no shutdown at tsunami centers

Rachel D’Oro / The Associated Press /


ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Despite the federal government’s partial shutdown, Americans have a full team of scientists tracking every possibility for an earthquake-triggered tsunami.

The nation’s two tsunami warning centers remain fully staffed and operating in Alaska and Hawaii.

“There’s been no change in our posture,” said Stuart Weinstein, deputy director of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii’s Ewa Beach on Oahu. “We’re still 24/7.”

Weinstein said operations will remain active throughout the shutdown.

In Alaska, Paul Whitmore is the director of the warning center in Palmer north of Anchorage. Besides staying open, the center has a new name: The National Tsunami Warning Center. The center was previously referred to as the West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center.

The new name, which went into use on Tuesday, more accurately reflects the center’s broadened geographic responsibility developed over the years — especially since the East Coast and eastern Canada (western Canada was already covered) were added in 2005, Whitmore said.

It better communicates the overall mission to primary customers, including state warning points and other emergency managers, the U.S. Coast Guard, Department of Defense and weather forecast offices.

“The previous name caused some confusion, especially with people on the East Coast who would see a message from the West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center and get rid of it, thinking that it wasn’t for them,” Whitmore said.

The Hawaii tsunami warning center was already in existence when the devastating magnitude-9.2 quake struck 75 miles east of Anchorage on Alaska’s Prince William Sound on Good Friday 1964. Between the quake and tsunami, about 130 people died in Alaska and around the state, according to Whitmore, who said that by the time Hawaii began sending out messages, it was too late.

That earthquake prompted creation of the Alaska warning center, which opened in 1967. Alaska is seismically active and has frequent earthquakes, although most are too small or too remote to be felt.

Both centers are operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Whitmore has worked at the Alaska center since 1986. During that time, he’s seen many changes in technology used in his line of business.

Today, the center has access to 650 seismometers around the world, compared to 18 when he first started. The center has access to more than 1,000 sea-level instruments, a huge increase from the mere eight instruments available about three decades ago.

Getting information out used to take 15 minutes. Now it takes about three minutes. Scientists also can now give people a better estimate of what a tsunami’s impact could be. Even though there is a 30 percent margin of error, the data today still puts “us into the right range,” Whitmore said.

Another change Whitmore has seen is an increase in the number of large earthquakes over the past decade, compared with quakes in the 1970s through the 1990s. Today’s rate is comparable to large earthquakes seen in the 1950s and 1960s, he said.

“It’s very hard to say if it’s just random chance that this has happened or if it is cyclical,” he said.