The Cayman Islands will benefit from the establishment of a Caribbean-wide tsunami warning system, but those involved with the project here are cautioning that the system should not lull anyone into a false sense of security.
Hazard Management Cayman Islands and the Meteorological Office recently completed installation of a seismic monitoring station at Frank Sound. A station for West Bay is about 90 per cent complete, while further stations are to be installed on Little Cayman and Cayman Brac.
The network is part of a global project being run by UNESCO’s International Oceanographic Commission. Governments meeting to discuss the warning system in Panama earlier this month agreed to have the system fully operational by 2010, Reuters reported 14 March.
Once the system is established, data from seismic events will be sent automatically to a Caribbean based monitoring station. The site of the monitoring station is yet to be decided, but data will be sent to a center in Trinidad in the interim.
‘From the analysis they will be able to see whether a tsunami is likely to be generated or not and, if it is, a warning will come back to Caribbean islands,’ explained HMCI Director Ms Barbara Carby.
‘But what we need to realize is that if the tsunami is generated close enough to any of the countries in the region, then that warning may well arrive too late.
‘You never know if you are actually going to get an electronic warning in time; it depends where the earthquake is and how fast the data can be analysed before they get a message back out.’
As there are no guarantees the warning system will be able to alert everyone, Ms Carby said public education and awareness about the signs of a tsunami and what to do when one strikes remain crucial.
‘Whether there is an electronic tsunami warning system or not, if people see the ocean withdrawal from the land, they need to know they must head in-land and find a high place.’
While Ms Carby admits it is difficult to predict how probable it is for a tsunami to strike Cayman, she pointed out there are numerous historical accounts of tsunamis hitting the region.
‘We know it can happen but it’s not one of the primary threats to the region,’ she said.
‘The scientists that work in tectonics and seismology say that they would not expect the size of a Caribbean tsunami to be anything like what happened in the Indian Ocean [on 26 December, 2004],’ she continued.
‘The tectonics of the Caribbean plate doesn’t suggest that we will be faced with that magnitude of event but there have been tsunamis that have caused fatalities previously.’
According to a 2005 study by University of North Carolina researchers, 10 significant tsunamis have been documented in the northern Caribbean since 1492, six of which are known to have claimed lives.
In Ms Carby’s research, she has not discovered any written evidence of a tsunami coming ashore on Grand Cayman. There is evidence that some large boulders on the island were put in place by large waves, but whether that was a tsunami or storm surge is up for debate, she commented.
Some have previously argued that Cayman is more protected from tsunamis than other Caribbean islands because of the protection afforded to these islands by Cuba and Hispaniola.
Ms Carby agreed these land masses could provide protection from tsunamis, but it would depend on what direction a tsunami was coming from.
‘How much protection those islands offer … you would have to look at all the possible sources for the earthquake then model the wave action based on those different sources.’