Palmer tsunami center has national audience

Zaz Hollander
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News The director of the the West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center, Paul Whitmore, talks about the operation of the Palmer, AK center on Wednesday, September 18, 2013. 130918
Bob Hallinen
A simulation for the projected tsunami is shown on a screen at the West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center in Palmer, AK center on Wednesday, September 18, 2013. 130918
Bob Hallinen
Physical Scientist Bill Knight changes the paper on the seismic activity recorder at the West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center in Palmer, AK center on Wednesday, September 18, 2013. The paper records the seismic activity for one day on the single sheet of paper. The center has one remaining paper print out recorder and they are not sure where they will get paper for it once the current supply runs out. 130918
Bob Hallinen
A earthquake just off the big island of Hawaii is shown on a monitor just after it happened at the West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center in Palmer, AK center on Wednesday, September 18, 2013. The red spikes represent Tsunami wave heights from a historical event. 130918
Bob Hallinen
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News The West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center in Palmer, AK center on Wednesday, September 18, 2013. 130918
Bob Hallinen

PALMER -- The devastating 9.0-magnitude earthquake that hit Japan two years ago sent a different kind of shock wave through an unassuming one-story white building a few blocks from the Glenn Highway and downtown Palmer.

Around 9 p.m. that March 2011 night, scientists at the West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center watched, riveted.

The biggest deep-ocean tsunami they'd ever seen was rolling across the Pacific.

Someone hit the "all-call" button that sends an automated phone message to tsunami forecasters: Come to work. Now.

Center director Paul Whitmore got the call at his Trapper Creek cabin, on the edge of cell phone range. He hit the road for Palmer.

Two hours later, Whitmore joined about a dozen other scientists scrambling to match earthquake data with tsunami models with real-time wave observations halfway across the world.

Within 30 minutes, the group had issued tsunami warnings or advisories for the length of the West Coast from California to Alaska. No injuries or damage were reported in Alaska, though a 25-year-old California man was swept to sea taking photographs of the waves at Crescent City, and Oregon and California experienced waterfront damage.

The Tsunami Warning Center traffics in life-saving science on a regular basis. But most people don't even know it's here.

"It's low key here until something big happens," said Whitmore, a geophysicist who's worked at the center since 1986. "It's very high visibility during an event. It's very high stress as well."

New name, same mission

Starting next month, the center's name will match its mission. It becomes the National Tsunami Warning Center as of Oct. 1.

The new name should improve the center's ability to get the word out, Whitmore said.

"The old name really caused some problems with people on the East Coast," he said. "They would see a message coming from the West Coast and Alaska and get rid of it."

Otherwise, the change is one in name only.

For the past eight years, the center's scientists have issued tsunami warnings and advisories for all of North America: Alaska and the Lower 48; Canada; and U.S. territories like Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

They also give assurances when smaller earthquakes are not expected to generate big waves.

The Palmer-based center is one of only two in the country. The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, based in Hawaii, is the other. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration operates them both.

The Alaska-based center's mission became national in 2005 after the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami that killed more than 230,000 people.

Since then, there's been a five-fold increase in seismic data around the world and a ten-fold increase in sea level data, according to Whitmore.

Since the 2004 tsunami, the West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center's operating budget has been about $700,000 a year. Congress funds NOAA's Tsunami Program at $23 million a year, according to agency spokeswoman Susan Buchanan.

Staffing at the Palmer center doubled to 15 full-time staffers, Buchanan said. The agency also deployed 16 new tide gauges to measure tsunami wave heights and provided grants to coastal states for tsunami education and readiness, she said.

Both Hawaii and Alaska centers are staffed around the clock.

"Over this period the U.S. has significantly ramped up its investment in tsunami warning capabilities," Buchanan wrote in an email.

Duct tape solution

Back in 1986, when the center operated out of a small converted home on Felton Street, it took an average of 13 minutes to issue tsunami messages.

Now it takes an average of three.

The art of tsunami forecasting boils down to two phases.

Earthquake phase: seismic gauges register a quake and the scientists pinpoint its location, size and depth.

Wave phase: forecasters pull up models showing the hypothetical tsunami that could happen. Then they get to work matching real-time observations with the models they see.

There's about a 30 percent margin of error -- if the center forecasts a 3-foot wave, it could be anywhere from two to four feet in the end, Whitmore said. That's bigger than it sounds. A tsunami isn't like an ocean wave, rising and falling in breakers that hit the shore every 5 or 10 seconds. A tsunami is a flooding wave. There may be 10 minutes or more, up to 60 minutes, between crests. A three-foot wave equates to a three-foot rise in sea level. Half that size wave will jumble ocean currents to the point they're dangerous to boats and anyone in the water.

If forecasters detect an earthquake strong enough to potentially trigger a tsunami, they'll start working up an advisory or the stronger warning, which is generally given for tsunami waves forecast at 3 feet or more. The message goes out to the state Department of Emergency Services, National Weather Service offices, U.S. Coast Guard and other military officials.

States notify local governments, which find their own ways to alert residents. During one event, the Coast Guard used duct tape to write the words "TSUNAMI" on the wings of a C-130 that flew low over hunters on a beach.

Alaska's risk

The center was calm on a geologically quiet day last week.

Seismic readings from 650 stations around the world, 350 in North America and 65 around Alaska stream into the facility.

The huge earthquakes across the Pacific galvanize Alaskans, but in general, the ocean waves that follow tend to dissipate by the time they reach our coast.

"By far in Alaska, our danger is from locally generated tsunamis," Whitmore said, eying an array of screens in front of him at the center.

Tsunami information is crucial in Alaska, given the state's sweeping coastline. An earthquake-triggered tsunami in 1958 killed five Alaskans in Lituya Bay in Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve and created the biggest splash wave ever recorded -- 1,720 feet.

Tsunamis triggered by the 1964 Good Friday earthquake killed 119 people and wreaked $300 to $400 million in damage to coastal communities, destroying Valdez and much of Seward.

Last October, a 7.7-magnitude quake off Haida Gwaii in British Columbia -- formerly known as the Queen Charlotte Islands -- triggered coastal alerts from Southeast to Vancouver Island but no recorded damage.

Occasional alarms sound. If an earthquake of 3.3-magnitude or higher happens in North America, "the earthquake voice" announces it.

That's because the center is also responsible for issuing messages even when there isn't a tsunami generated. A 4.0-magnitude quake will feel pretty strong but not necessarily trigger a wave.

"We don't want them to do evacuations if there's no danger," Whitmore said.

Big quakes like the one last October or the 2011 Japan event, on the other hand, will trigger alerts that stay in effect for hours or even days.

Wave warning

Sometimes even the best of intentions go sideways when it comes to tsunami warnings.

Seward watched nervously back in 2011 as word of the Japanese quake reached the community where the 1964 tsunami killed 12 people.

Seven sirens around town started to sound, rising and falling like an old-fashioned firehouse alarm.

Residents saw the images from Japan on TV. Glued to computers, tablets and smart phones, they tracked the frenzy of rumors and half-truths that plagues social media after a disaster.

Hundreds of calls flooded the only emergency dispatcher working that night, according to Seward fire chief Eddie Athey.

"It was problematic for us because we were not directly affected but the sirens went off, so we had this confusion of people wondering what they should do -- 'Should we evacuate? Should we not evacuate?'" Athey recalled last week. "They called dispatch."

Ultimately, the water in the harbor shifted by less than a foot.

The fire department tells the public to evacuate if they hear a siren -- better safe than sorry -- but Athey adds what he considers the most important message: A strong earthquake means head for high ground. Have a weather radio and bag ready to grab as you head out the door.

"If we experience an earthquake lasting 30 seconds or longer, making it difficult to stand up, you should evacuate," he said. "Don't wait for the sirens, don't wait for somebody to tell you."

Seward is one of 10 Alaskan "Tsunami Ready" communities with established warning systems, tsunami evacuation plans and hazard education programs.

It can be challenging to keep emergency managers aware of the risk of tsunamis because really destructive ones happen relatively rarely, Whitmore said.

"Tsunamis are dangerous. They're gonna happen," he said. "Get your plans up to date and practice 'em."

Reach Zaz Hollander at or 257-4317.




The West Coast/Alaska Tsunami Warning Center opens its doors to the public for three tours every Friday at 1 p.m., 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. Scientists crank up the OmniGlobe, a glowing sphere that shows sea currents or shifting plate tectonics over the last 600 million years. Staffers simulate a tsunami in a long, narrow plastic wave tank. School groups starting at 4th grade are welcome too. For more information, or if the tour group will exceed six people, call 1-907-745-4212. A government-issued photo ID is required to enter.