Nevada experts add to tsunami knowledge

4/2/2007 7:00:00 AM

Scientists at the University of Nevada, Reno are at the forefront on a number of seismological fields, including helping the world better determine whether an earthquake is big enough to generate an ocean-wide tsunami.

Through work at the Nevada Seismological Laboratory on the Nevada campus, important data on seismological events throughout the world is compiled, including Monday's fatal occurrence in the Solomon Islands, where at least 13 people were killed. Tsunamis triggered by an undersea earthquake crashed ashore and wiped away entire villages and set off alerts from Australia to Hawaii.

A research team led by Geoffrey Blewitt of the Nevada Bureau of Mines and Geology and Seismological Laboratory has demonstrated that a large quake's true size can be determined within 15 minutes using Global Positioning System data. This swift exchange of information, which is much faster than is possible with current methods, can be critical in determining whether an earthquake might trigger a tsunami. Together with a seismometer and ocean buoy data, GPS has the potential to become an important tool in improving tsunami danger assessments, Blewitt said.

"We'll always need seismology as the first level of alert for large earthquakes, and we'll need ocean buoys to actually sense the tsunami waves," said Blewitt, whose work was originally accomplished through the NASA-funded Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. Blewitt's team recently was granted further funding from the U.S. Geological Survey's Natural Hazards Reduction Program to continue research and development.

"The advantage of including GPS in warning systems is that it quickly tells how much the ocean floor moved, and that information can directly set tsunami models into motion."

University seismological experts such as John Anderson, director of the Nevada Seismological Laboratory, and Richard Schweickert, professor of geological sciences and engineering, have used analysis similar to that used in studying the propagation of tsunamis in oceans in determining the likelihood of a tsunami occurring at Lake Tahoe, which straddles both the states of Nevada and California.

Anderson, considered one of the country's foremost earthquake experts, said that those who live along shorelines should always be aware that tsunamis can occur.

"If there is ever a strong earthquake at Lake Tahoe, for example, where the shaking is really strong for more than 10 seconds, anyone less than 50 feet above the lake level should run to higher ground as soon as the shaking stops," Anderson said.


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