Tsunami threat ‘zippo’

Despite postulations of geologists Steven Ward and Simon Day that a ‘mega-tsunami’ could possibly inundate parts of the United States and Caribbean, even the two scientists themselves admit that the chances of such an event occurring anytime soon are remote.

Day, of the Benfield Greg Hazard Research Centre at University College London, suggested more than four years ago that the volcano Cumbre Vieja on the Canary Island of La Palma could erupt with such force that it would sever the island in two, causing a landslide that might create a tsunami which could travel across the Atlantic Ocean and devastate the eastern seaboard of the United States, many Caribbean island nations, and even Britain.

Ward, a research geophysicist at the University of California Santa Cruz, worked with Day to develop a computer model that showed waves up to 150 feet high reaching the United States coast within nine hours after the landslide.

However, both Ward and Day agree that such an occurrence is unlikely to occur anytime soon.

“We’re looking at an event that could be decades or a century away but there will be a degree of warning beforehand,” Day told the Independent in 2001.

Ward said that even with the next eruption of the Cumbre Vieja volcano, which last erupted in 1971, it probably would not collapse. ‘Let’s not scare people,’ he told the Associated Press last October. ‘Certainly there is no indication that this will happen any time soon. Even when there is an eruption, the probability of collapse is low. There may be many eruptions before the volcano is finally weak enough to collapse.”

Some other scientists disagree with the duo’s findings.

George Pararas-Carayannis, a leading expert on tsunamis and former Director of the International Tsunami Information Center, published a paper in 2002 refuting the findings of Day and Ward.

‘Unfortunately, media publicity of these estimates has inadvertently created unnecessary public anxiety by further implying that the threat to coastal communities may be imminent, in both the Atlantic and the Pacific,’ he wrote in the paper titled ‘Evaluation of the threat of mega-tsunami generation from postulated massive slope failures of island stratovolcanoes on La Palma, Canary Islands, and on the island of Hawaii’.

Pararas-Carayannis provided a scientific analysis in the paper, which he said demonstrated that Day’s estimates were incorrect and that the threat of a mega-tsunami generated from the landslide of a volcano like Cumbre Vieja was ‘greatly overstated.’

Among other things, Pararas-Carayannis suggests that a tsunami generated in the Canary Islands would largely dissipate prior to arriving in the United States or Caribbean.

Charles Mader, another leading tsunami expert, agrees with Pararas-Carayannis on that point.

Other leading scientists also think the tsunami hazard has been overstated.

‘The probability of an enormous wave on the East Coast is so small it’s “practically zippo,” said U.S. Geological Survey scientist Robert Morton to the Daytona Beach News Journal this week.

Another factor that would lessen any risk the Cayman Islands would have from tsunamis generated in the Canary Islands would be the number of land masses in the way of such waves, including the Turks and Caicos island chain, the island of Hispaniola, Jamaica and especially Cuba.

Even though scientists generally believe that the chances of mega-tsunami are slim, there have been deadly tsunamis in the Caribbean before – most recently in Puerto Rico in 1918 – and there will likely be others in the future.

Many scientists are therefore calling for an early warning system to be adopted in the Caribbean.

In the face of the devastation in Asia from last weekend’s tsunamis, the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Response Agency is already having talks in effort to establish such an early warning system, in spite of the fact that it recognizes that the probability is low for such an event to occur in the Caribbean.

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