Author(s): Marcie Grabowski

UH leads game-changing earthquake, tsunami undersea early warning system

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The Pacific Coast Tsunami Hazard Zone warning sign warns the public of potential dangers following an earthquake.
Michael Vi/Shutterstock

An effort to advance a global network of SMART seafloor cables and develop early warning systems for tsunamis and earthquakes around Vanuatu and New Caledonia is being led by the University of Hawaiʻiat Mānoa. The international team received support of more than $7 million from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

“Through this project, we are developing a new ocean and Earth observing capability—sensors integrated in subsea telecommunications cables—and developing simulations and scientific protocols to provide earthquake and tsunami early warnings,” said Bruce Howe, lead investigator of the new grant and professor of Ocean and Resources Engineering in the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology (SOEST).

The Science Monitoring And Reliable Telecommunications (SMART) Subsea Cables initiative is gaining momentum around the world. This effort aims to integrate ocean temperature, pressure and seismic sensors into commercial submarine telecommunications systems that crisscross the ocean floor. As new systems are installed, researchers and communities hope to cost-effectively transform the current telecom network into a combined telecom and planetary-scale ocean, climate and geophysical sensor array capable of informing early warning systems.

“This brilliant project will transform the practical cables that link communications and commerce into a world-wide scientific instrument of profound importance to every person on Earth. We are delighted to help the University of Hawaiʻi pioneer this game-changing effort,” said Robert Kirshner, chief program officer for Science at the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

Bridging the gap

The overarching goal of the newly funded, five-year project is to help bridge the perilous gap between concept and implementation. The team aims to have sensor integration into subsea telecommunications cables become the world standard, leading to a global network for sustained ocean observation, geophysical study of earthquakes, and earthquake and tsunami warning in a world with rising sea levels.

To do this, the team will lay groundwork for the science and early warning use of undersea cables by simulations of the observing system before deployment, data analysis after deployment and sustained scientific operation.

They will apply results of the simulations to optimize the proposed Vanuatu-New Caledonia cable system and its operation. This will demonstrate the capability of the earthquake and tsunami early warning system based on the SMART sensors in one of the world’s most at-risk countries for natural disasters due to its location in the seismically active “Ring of Fire.”

A significant aspect of the project is training staff in the region to increase local expertise in related science, data management to create early warnings and predictions, and telecommunication processes. Included are workshops and courses for Vanuatu Meteorology and Geohazards Departmentprofessionals and funding for education of graduate students at the National University of VanuatuUHMānoa and partner institutions—providing the science and technical foundation of a lasting observing system.

“It is critical to have a robust workforce in preparation for the new SMART cable system,” said Howe. “This will ensure operation and maintenance of the early warning systems which will help mitigate the risks of earthquake and tsunami hazards.”

Lastly, the project will support the international project office of the Joint Task Force Scientific Monitoring And Reliable Telecommunications cables, working to facilitate adoption of scientific sensors in all new subsea telecommunications cables to reach a global scale. This Joint Task Force, endorsed by the United Nations Ocean Decade for Sustainable Development, is sponsored by the International Telecommunication Union, World Meteorological Organization and UNESCO-Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission.

Reducing risk through science, innovation, partnership

“Ideally the incorporation of SMART capability would become a routine function for the submarine cable industry,” said Howe. “Achieving this goal will generate key reductions in human and planetary risk. We hope this project is a demonstration for the global audience about how communities and science can benefit from SMART cables.”

Securing the new funding required local and international collaboration. UH Foundation facilitated working with Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, thus bringing the project headquarters to UHMānoa.

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