Cover Story

Beneath the surface of tsunamis’ past, present and future


An increasing number of mainstream scientists (formerly called doomsayers) believe we could be sitting on a time bomb that sooner or later could destroy the entire planet.

Yellowstone National Park’s “supervolcano” is 20,000 years past due for a major eruption, at least that’s what alarmists will say. In 2003, a 4.4 magnitude earthquake occurred just nine miles southeast of the entrance to the park, and Marshall Masters, publisher for [], a science-fiction based website, speculates, “Simply put, anyone living within 600 miles of Yellowstone could be sitting in a modern-day Pompeii.”

So what do these crazy theories have to do with us?

According to tsunami experts, once a huge volcano starts exploding, magma is pushed quickly into the geologic “plumbing” system lying underneath. In coastal areas, like Hawaii, this can produce huge tsunamis.

Take for example the catastrophic tsunami of December 2004, when the fourth most powerful undersea earthquake in history killed 230,000 people in Sumatra, Indonesia. The earthquake unleashed a tsunami so powerful that it moved the entire island 100 feet to the southwest. And most recently, after a 9.0 earthquake crippled Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant this year, a tsunami hit Sendai 25 minutes later. More than 27,500 people were left dead or missing three weeks after the quake.

Tsunamis of the Future

A tsunami is a series of ocean waves that creates enormous surges of water, sometimes reaching heights of over 100 feet. When these walls of water crash ashore, they can cause deaths and widespread damage. About 80 percent of tsunamis happen within the Pacific Ocean’s “Ring of Fire,” a geologically active area where tectonic shifts are common. Underwater landslides or volcanic eruptions can create tsunamis that race across the ocean at up to 500 miles an hour, about the speed of a jet plane. A mega-tsunami (yes, these exist!) is a wave that can be thousands of feet high.

The largest tsunami on record (Lituya Bay, Alaska in 1958) created a wave 470 feet taller than the Empire State Building that surged through the bay, devastating everything in its path. And last year’s eruption in Iceland sent ash, smoke and steam miles into the air, causing a thick layer of gray soot that left 10 million travelers stranded around the world.

“Tsunamis remain a true and constant threat to the people of Hawaii,” says Walter C. Dudley, an oceanography professor at the UH-Hilo and co-author of several books about tsunamis. It is his hope that they will explain how these waves behave and help to educate people in Hawaii and throughout the world to be better prepared for the next tsunami.

Dudley has worked on many tsunami-related projects with Jeanne Branch Johnston, formerly the earthquake and tsunami program planner for the State of Hawaii Civil Defense Division. At the age of six, Johnston survived a tsunami that slammed into Hilo Bay shortly after sunrise on April Fool’s Day in 1946. A series of ocean waves traveling 2,300 miles from the Aleutian Islands in less than five hours claimed 159 lives. Fortunately, Johnston and her family survived.

In 1993, Johnston realized that most people in Hilo had forgotten about earlier deadly tsunamis, so she and many dedicated people, including current director Donna W. Saiki, have devoted their time, money and talents to launch and operate the Hilo Tsunami Museum. “With tsunamis, it’s never ‘if’ but ‘when,’ says Johnston.

What We’ve Learned…so far

Shortly after the recent Japanese tsunami, Kwok Fai Cheung, a professor at UH–Manoa’s Department of Ocean and Resources Engineering updated inundation maps provided to the county civil defense agencies as a “worst case scenario” for Hawaii’s next tsunami. The study is based on the largest Pacific-based tsunamis that have occurred during the last century, and on studies from earthquake hotspots throughout the Islands. Cheung’s research is also based on maps of five historic earthquakes that led to five deadly tsunamis in Kamchatka Peninsula, the Aleutian Islands, Alaska and Chile.

In 1989, Hawaii was the first state to devise official tsunami evacuation zones, according to George Curtis, a Hawaii County tsunami advisor and semi-retired UH-Manoa professor. “If you are in an evacuation zone, you move out, and you are safe,” Curtis says. “It doesn’t matter where [a person] moves, as long as they get out of the evacuation zone.”

Evacuation zones are based on predicted maximum inundation levels for any tsunami from any direction, and include traffic and population patterns “We draw up those inundation limits on maps, and then it’s up to the county to develop an evacuation zone that would be mauka of that,” Curtis says, ”These zones can be found in the local phone book. County civil defense agencies are in charge of drafting them, and each county is responsible for drawing up their own.”

Curtis says there are tsunami warning signs all around the Big Island, both on streets and along the coast. But for some strange reason, there are no such signs on Oahu. Could it be for fear of frightening tourists?

“As I understand it,” says Gerard Fryer, geophysicist for the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, “…it is because the visitor industry is terrified of them. And that’s a big deal. The state wants signs. The city wants signs.”

Momi Akimseu, the communications and brand manager for the Hawaii Tourism Authority has a different view, She says, “[tourism] is the state’s number one business, and we have to keep it pumping…We want visitors to be informed, but not alarmed.”

What scientists suggest they’ve learned from Japan’s recent seismic event is that, in the future, earthquakes and tsunamis will most likely be stronger. And this makes safety and the logistics of evacuation an even greater challenge.

“One of the things we realized in retrospect,” says Fryer, “is that we didn’t differentiate how to deal with the tsunami if you are on land versus the water. For example, all the mayors collectively announced an “all clear” but none of the people who were dealing with boat users were ready for the “all clear.” Everybody perceived it as being safe to go back into the ocean and it really wasn’t.”

Run For the Hills

Fryer points out that one of the most important aspects of a tsunami is the time of day that it occurs. “The timing is probably not going to be so cooperative next time,” he predicts.

Nathan Wood, research geographer for the US Geological Survey, echoes this concern. “Would people who live, work and play in those zones know that they are in tsunami evacuation zones?” he asks. If sirens were to go off, would they know what to do and where to go? Wood questions whether or not there’s a true culture of safety–not just for the residents but for tourists and employees. “Getting that message out is one of the things where the state could do a much better job.”

Fryer points out the high number of parks and family-based places located within evacuation zones. “Someone could live way high up and feel superior because they aren’t in a tsunami zone, but they might go to the market every day in a tsunami zone. And if you only spend eight hours of your day at your house, two-thirds of your day is in a tsunami zone because pretty much a lot of the Hawaiian coast is in tsunami zones.”

The tsunami that devastated Japan has raised many fears throughout Hawaii and the US, leading many to believe that an earthquake-triggered wave could wreak major havoc in the future, not only in the Pacific but also on the Mainland. And according to Eddie Bernard, who works with NOAA, these fears are well-grounded. Bernard ran the government’s tsunami research center for decades, and even he was astounded to learn that the recent tsunami in Japan reached a height of 130 feet above sea level. “Never have I seen anything this widespread,” he said in a PBS interview. “I mean, the amount of debris, meters deep, bodies buried in within all this stuff–I never expected to see anything of this massive magnitude. I think this is a very big wakeup call for the US.”

An increasing number of mainstream scientists (formerly called doomsayers) believe we could be sitting on a time bomb that sooner or later could destroy the entire planet. The devastating events in Japan, Haiti and Indonesia may be a sneak preview of something 100 times worse. The next tsunami may be the worst natural disaster in history. Says Quince Mento, head of the Hawaii County Civil Defense Agency, “You know, the end of the world stuff is out there, and we never assume that another [tsunami] won’t happen, but can you plan for the end of the world?”

The Tsunami of Change

Everything is a consequence of human action, according to, James Dator, a professor and Director of the Hawai’i Research Center for Futures Studies at UH-Manoa, “Today, even so-called natural disasters such as large tsunamis, hurricanes and sea level rise are consequences of human activity.” Humans are a major geological force in terms of the increasing number of environmental disasters. “Since our behavior has helped create them, we must also assume responsibility and learn to adapt to them.”

Dator, who gave a talk to the World Future Society on “Surfing the Tsunami of Change,” is now working on a federal grant to study how Hawaii can best deal with sea level rise. One of the key issues is tsunami evacuation. “Hawaii has so many people living on an island with so many roads that there’s no way we can effectively evacuate.”

In terms of tsunami alleviation, Dator says that most people deny it’s a problem. “If they do recognize it, they try to offer protection with dikes and huge walls. “Look at Japan,” he says. “They were extraordinarily proactive, even building structures of wood and bamboo so they could easily be rebuilt. Then they followed our Western style by building concrete buildings made to last forever.”

We should not have an attitude of “fighting” sea level rise and other environmental problems, according to Dator. We don’t want to build dikes to stop sea level rise, for example We need buildings that actually embrace and are prepared for the rise.”

Although Dator observes that his students are conflicted about these problems because so many other people are in denial. “It really requires an attitudinal change,” he says. “My students’ future will probably mean living without oil, worsening environmental problems and a declining economy. This is not the way their parents and grandparents lived. It’s also not doom and gloom. It’s today’s reality, and we all have to learn how to make the best of it.”

Additional reporting by Jessie Schiewe

Centuries ago, before the earth was overpopulated, only the fittest survived. Only those who could protect themselves against the elements, wild animals and disease continued to exist. But now we’re over-civilized, and even the unfit are able to survive–that is, until nature decides it’s time for a mega-strike. We’ve seen it happen in the past, and if Japan’s recent tsunami disaster isn’t enough to clue us in that the future could be bleak, here’s a scenario for you:

Meeting the Challenge

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center (PTWC) provides advanced warning of tsunamis to residents of all countries in the Pacific basin. In response to the recent Japanese tsunami, the PTWC issued a tsunami warning eight minutes after the 8.9 magnitude earthquake hit Japan.

While the tsunami damaged many homes and boats in the Pacific basin, there were no deaths reported, says Stuart Weinstein, assistant director of the PTWC. “In terms of evacuation, no one was hurt, and [regarding] the state of Hawaii’s response to our warnings, everything went smoothly for us.”

Though no official evacuations were conducted in Hawaii, the PTWC issued water level updates throughout the state. “It’s pretty clear that if there were no warning, the people on the beaches would have drowned,” says Weinstein.

According to him, the PTWC provides warnings and tsunami information in their online bulletins, but it’s up to the state and counties to act on the supplied information. “It’s the job of civil defense to advise people as to what kind of a threat Hawaii is subjected to and to take appropriate measures,” says Weinstein, who adds that Hawaii state civil defense and the PTWC work closely together to enhance security measures.

The PTWC did not encounter many obstacles in responding to the Japanese tsunami, according to Weinstein. “Feedback from other countries was positive for the most part,” he points out. “They were quite satisfied with our performance.”

For more information about the PTWC, go to: []

Tsunami Facts

Kailua-Kona and Kealakekua Bay on the Big Island experienced the most damage out of all the islands. According to Quince Mento, the department head of the Hawaii County Civil Defense Agency, a total of 26 homes (including apartments and condominiums) and 52 businesses were damaged, with an estimated loss of $2,521,114 and $11,100,000, respectively. However, these estimates are based on the value of the structure only, he says, and do not include the cost of lost or damaged contents, furnishings, inventory or vehicles.

Included among the 52 damaged businesses were the King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel, the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company, the Kona Inn Restaurant, the Kona Reef Hotel, the Kona Village Resort and The Four Seasons Resort Hualalai. The Puu O Honaunau National Historic Park was also flooded, and Kailua Pier and Alii Drive were littered with large amounts of asphalt, concrete and other debris. Weirdest of all, one two-story home at Kealakekua Bay was even uprooted from its foundations and floated into the Bay.