NOAA completes tsunami warning system

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has deployed the final two buoys in the South Pacific that complete a computer system providing real-time data to detect tsunamis and warn U.S. coastal communities about them. NOAA launched the $26 million Deep-Ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunamis program, or DART, following the December 2004 tsunami that struck Indonesia, killing thousands. Each detection system includes a pressure sensor anchored to the seafloor, which transmits data on any sudden rise in the ocean floor to a surface buoy. The buoy relays the information to satellites, which in turn send it to two NOAA tsunami warning centers serving the Pacific and the West Coasts. Officials at those centers then determine whether a bulletin, watch or warning should be issued to the public. NOAA also created a tsunami Web portal to store information.

"These are significant accomplishments that cut across all of NOAA," said John McNulty, director of the Office of Operational Systems at NOAA's National Weather Service. "It was an integrated effort that involved other offices beyond the Weather Service."

NOAA already had operated six buoys in the eastern Pacific, but expanded the system to 39 by adding buoys in the western Pacific and Atlantic Ocean. NOAA upgraded all the buoys to better monitor tsunami threats and keep the public informed of the threats.

In addition, the agency installed 49 new or upgraded tide gauges, along with eight seismic stations for measuring vibrations caused by activity within the earth. Also, 26 forecast models were implemented for at-risk communities, and operations at the Pacific and West Coast/Alaska Tsunami Warning centers were extended to 24 hours a day.

NOAA also is assisting Australia and Indonesia with installation of tsunami warning systems off their coasts, and sharing data with other countries around the world.

With the infrastructure portion of the initiative complete, NOAA will use $23 million in annual recurring funds to archive the data that DART collects and from surveys conducted by NOAA and other federal agencies. NOAA also will use the funds to update forecast models, and to promote public awareness. In particular, the TsunamiReady program seeks to educate the public about tsunami threats and ensure people know what to do if a warning is issued in their community.

"Through this effort, we've been able to more quickly confirm threats of tsunamis, or eliminate [concern] that a seismic event could be one," McNulty said. "That provides greater protection for the American public."

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