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Hawaii's tsunami warning: How the US is better prepared.

How has the US become better prepared to forecast tsunamis?

By Peter N. SpottsStaff writer / February 27, 2010

A tsunami warning has been issued for Hawaii following a massive earthquake in Chile. To improve tsunami forecasting, the US government has invested some $42 million to beef up seismic and tsunami detection and warning efforts.

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From Australia to Alaska, coastal communities throughout the Pacific basin are bracing for tsunamis generated by a powerful earthquake that struck the central Chilean Coast just after 3:30 a.m. local time Saturday.

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The undersea quake, which hit magnitude 8.8, unleashed some 500 times the amount of energy released by the quake that struck Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Jan. 12. The epicenter is not far from the site of a temblor in 1960 that – at magnitude 9.5 – remains the most powerful quake on record.

The stricken area along the Chilean coast reported tidal waves some six feet above normal surf levels.

IN PICTURES: Images from the 8.8 magnitude earthquake in Chile

Warnings have been posted for the Hawaiian islands, New Zealand, and for portions of Australia’s east coast, among other locations. The US West Coast, British Columbia, and the Alaskan Coast are under tsunami advisories. So far, Japan has posted no advisories or warnings.

In Hawaii, forecasters aren’t certain how high the waves will be when they reach the islands, but suggest they could be the largest tidal waves to hit the state since the Alaskan earthquake of 1964, when 12.5-foot waves struck Hilo.

Awareness of tsunami hazards has heightened in recent years, following a magnitude 9.3 earthquake off the Indonesian island of Sumatra in December 2004. Tsunamis the quake generated struck the coastal city of Banda Aceh, killing nearly 178,000 people.

Improving tsunami forecasts

Before the quake, the US had deployed only six tsunami-detection buoys, largely as tools for exploring ways to improve tsunami forecasts, according to Helmit Poartmann, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Data Buoy Center near Biloxi, Miss. Now, the center has 39 buoys spread through the Pacific, in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, and in the Caribbean Sea.

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