Washington, DC — A highly-touted new ocean-based tsunami warning system has large dead zones that undercut its effectiveness, according to documents posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientists also complain that several other stations are reporting sporadic data that is not useable.
NOAA completed its Deep Ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunamis (DART) network of 39 stations covering the Pacific, Atlantic, Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico in March 2008. NOAA claims that the “DART network serves as the cornerstone of the U.S. tsunami warning system” yet a significant portion of the stations are not functioning.
NOAA records indicate that more than one in four (10 out of 39) of its DART stations are failing. When the seven DART buoys operated by other countries are added in the failure rate rises to above 30%. A review by PEER indicates the average dead period for non-reporting DART stations exceeds 6 months.
Significantly, one area left completely uncovered is the Kuril Trench, off the Pacific coast of Russia, that is part of the “Ring of Fire”, named due to its tectonic instability resulting in frequent seismic activity that has historically produced large tsunamogenic earthquakes. All four of the DART buoys closest to the Kuril Trench are non-responsive.
“NOAA scientists rely on the DART network to help provide timely tsunami warnings so as to prevent a repeat of the human catastrophe seen in south Asia from the 2004 Indonesian tsunami,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “Our scientists worry that this system is like a fire alarm that cannot ring.”
A DART works by sending acoustic signals between a transmitter anchored on the sea floor and a surface buoy. As a tsunami moves across the ocean, the DART reports bottom pressure changes due to the entire column of water above. With these measurements taken in the open ocean, NOAA’s Tsunami Warning Centers are better able to predict the size of any tsunami. This improves forecasts, thus allowing earlier, more accurate watches, warnings and, if needed, evacuations.
In 2008, NOAA actually requested a more than million dollar decrease in its appropriation “to reflect the completion of the…DART buoys”, leaving no funds or personnel dedicated to the DART network.
“We hope that by publicly bringing this problem to NOAA’s attention that they will fix it,” added Ruch, pointing to NOAA attempts to fix problems in its Hawaiian seismic network earlier this year after PEER went public with internal memos outlining delays and dysfunctions. “If, as claimed, DART is the cornerstone of our tsunami warning system, then NOAA should make darn sure this cornerstone is not crumbling.”