NOAA 2004-R526
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NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Research Laboratory in Seattle has been awarded the U.S. Department of Commerce Gold Medal for a tsunami detection system that prevented the unnecessary evacuation of thousands of residents and saved millions of dollars the first time it was used operationally. The secretary of commerce grants the Gold Medal to employees who have made contributions of exceptional value in support of overall departmental goals that serve the nation. NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is an agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Eddie N. Bernard, director of PMEL, will accept the award on behalf of the laboratory during a Nov. 9 ceremony in Washington, D.C.

“This is an excellent example of NOAA science creating value for America. The personnel at PMEL recognized that tsunami detection was a critical issue, they used science to formulate a solution, developed technology to apply the science, tested the performance and reliability of the technology, and then transferred that science and technology to an operational system,” said retired Navy Vice Adm. Conrad C. Lautenbacher, Ph.D., under secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and NOAA administrator. “We are very proud that the secretary of commerce has chosen our personnel from PMEL to receive the department’s highest award.”

Tsunamis are large waves often caused by underwater eruptions, landslides, and other disturbances on the ocean floor. Tsunami waves can travel great distances and can initially be very small; however, once they reach shore their height and destructive power is magnified.

The scientific challenge was to develop a system that would detect the waves very early in their travels to be able to issue warnings to those on land. There have been high rates of false alarms warning of impending destructive tsunamis because there was no information about the approaching tsunami in the deep ocean. Hawaii, Japan, and the west coast of the United States are more likely to be affected by tsunamis, although they have been known to affect the U.S. east coast.

Scientists at PMEL began working on this project 20 years ago. Working with a variety of scientists and technicians, the laboratory developed technology to detect and report information on the approaching tsunami in real-time. The system features a sensor that sits on the ocean floor and detects any tsunami larger than one-half inch in the deep ocean. That information is relayed to a moored buoy that processes the information and sends it via satellite to the tsunami warning centers in Hawaii and Alaska. Those centers then issue warnings and advisories for potentially affected areas. These data also are posted on the Internet at:

After refining and testing, the system was transferred to the National Data Buoy Center, an operational arm of NOAA, in October 2003. A month later, the system had its first operational test and worked as designed. A 7.5-magnitude earthquake off of the Aleutian Islands generated a tsunami that led to the issuance of a warning for the region from the Alaska center. The warning was then canceled, based on the buoy information.

“The system determined that the tsunami was not a threat to Hawaii,” said Bernard. “Because of that information, the State of Hawaii saved about $68 million in loss productivity if the area had to be evacuated. It was exciting and satisfying to see the system make such a difference.”

The cost of developing and installing the six “tsunameters,” as Bernard calls them, is about $10 million. There are three in the Gulf of Alaska, two off of the coast of Oregon, and one is located on the equator to detect tsunamis from South America.

PMEL is a leader in developing ocean observational systems to support NOAA’s mission. The laboratory conducts out interdisciplinary scientific investigations in oceanography and atmospheric science.

NOAA is dedicated to enhancing economic security and national safety through research to better understand atmospheric and climate variability and to manage wisely our nation's coastal and marine resources.

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