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Environment & Science

Budget cuts threaten tsunami early detection system

Workers unload a Tsunami Buoy from the US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The device is used to detect early tsunami warnings.
Workers unload a Tsunami Buoy from the US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The device is used to detect early tsunami warnings.

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Last year's massive tsunami may have hit the coast of Japan, but the waves also impacted Northern California. Crescent City and Santa Cruz harbors suffered $58 million in damages. Scientists were able to track the wave and determine when it would strike thanks in large part to an early warning system operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

But this early detection system is now threatened by the Obama administration's proposed 2013 budget, which may see NOAA lose crucial funding.

Usually, the first sign of a tsunami is an earthquake, which is detected by seismologists. But to ascertain whether the earthquake will cause tsunami waves, scientists rely on 39 high-tech buoys across the world's oceans.

These buoys are so sensitive that they can detect a wave about a half-inch in size. Data is then sent back to scientists who calculate where and when the waves will strike.

NOAA is projected to suffer a $4.6 million cut. As it stands, the agency would subtract $1 million from the funds dedicated towards these buoys.

But John Orcutt, professor at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, said that the system is in disrepair. In fact, 10 of those 39 buoys are broken. According to Orcutt, losing $1 million would cause further damages.

"The result is really quite predictable. It means even more of the instruments would be out at critical times, possibly, for tsunami warning," he said.

Though NOAA said they’ll try to fix buoys with a limited budget, some of them are in floating in places like the South Pacific, or in the rough waters off Alaska. That makes them difficult and costly to reach.

Though alternate sources may have ways to track potentially hazardous waters, agencies may not be set up to process the vital information quickly. NASA, for instance, has the ability to trace a wave with a satellite. But images of the ocean can be hard to read from above. Sometimes a giant wave doesn't look like a wave until it gets closer to land, by then it's too late. With tsunamis, you often don’t have that kind of time.

Still, NOAA’s buoys are durable and have proven effective in times of need. In 2004 when there was a tsunami in the Indian Ocean, there were only six of these buoys around the world and scientists were still able to detect that wave using the system. NOAA did not respond to requests for interview, but in previous statements they’ve told the media they don’t think cuts to the buoy system will sacrifice public safety.

Jim Goltz, former chief of Earthquakes, Tsunamis and Volcanic Hazards for California Emergency Management Agency, Cal-EMA, said he worries less about the buoys than about other cuts in the president's budget plan.

"The Tsunami Warning Center will not provide us adequate warning if the earthquake that generates the tsunami is right off the coast of California,” Goltz cautioned.

He pointed that in those cases, residents may have only minutes to act. The key is making sure people are educated about what to do in an emergency. Those programs are also being significantly cut by the president’s budget.

The priority, Goltz said, is making sure people are educated about what to do in an emergency. But if the president's budget passes, Goltz projects that Cal-EMA will lose half its budget, significantly hindering the ability to educate people.

"Public education is something that is perishable. We need to constantly remind people who are likely to visit our coast that tsunamis are a hazard that they half to prepare for," Goltz said.

Congress still has to pass the budget before the cuts take effect, and they likely won't vote on it for months. Meanwhile, several senators from coastal regions are calling for nixing the cuts, including Democratic senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer from California.

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