Tsunami 1

Aftermath of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. Courtesy of Jose Borrero

Ten years ago, on Boxing Day, a powerful earthquake in the Indian Ocean led to a devastating tsunami, which caused over 200,000 deaths. Since then, there have been significant advances in warning methodology, disaster preparedness and understanding of basic processes. Yet, as the 2011 Japan tsunami demonstrated, tsunamis continue to avoidably take lives and cause significant damage around the world. Broadcasted live to a stunned world audience, the trail of destruction of this event in probably most tsunami ready nation underscores the difficulties of implementing not just theoretical but even practical advances in hazard mitigation.

In 2015, Philosophical Transactions A will publish a theme issue entitled ‘Tsunamis: Bridging Science, Engineering and Society,’ which will look at the lessons learnt from tsunamis over the last ten years, describe recent advances and identify vexing cross-disciplinary challenges. Utku Kânoğlu, who is guest editing the issue along with Vasily Titov, Eddie Bernard and Costas Synolakis, talks to us about what to expect.

Aftermath of the 2011 Japan tsunami. Courtesy of Hermann Fritz

Tell us a bit about this theme issue and what the papers will cover.
The theme issue will provide an encapsulation of the state of tsunami science 10 years after the most deadly tsunami in the world’s written history. While covering lessons learned from the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami for warning systems, hazard mitigation, and applied research, papers in this issue will also describe updates on tsunamis generated by landslides, underwater volcanoes, meteors, and meteorological events. We expect that this issue will summarize recent advances in basic understanding, discuss state-of-the-art methodologies, outline standards for warnings and design of critical structures, and identify challenges and show-stoppers. We hope that this theme issue will bridge science, engineering and society and help to build up coastal resilience, thus hopefully, help to reduce future losses and save lives.

How has disaster preparedness changed since the Boxing Day tsunami, and what more still needs to be done?
Tsunamis had been believed extremely rare events. Yet, on average, about one event per year has been reported in the past two decades, making them the most common extreme hazard. In addition, tsunami was perceived as a minor natural hazard before 2004. A 2013 United Nations report estimated that 60,000 people and US$ 4 billion in assets worldwide are exposed to tsunami hazards each year. While these numbers suggest that tsunamis are a significant global danger, they are likely an understatement of the actual hazard. Mitigating tsunami impacts is a global problem and every nation needs to adopt best practices and standards. What needs to be done is to establish protocols to ensure the adoption of global standards and warnings, so everyone understands how to respond regardless of where they are residing or visiting.

What impact do you hope that this issue will have in its field?
Around the world, a substantial number of people live in high-risk coastal communities, and many tourists visit these locales at any given time. Tsunamis are possibly the only natural hazard that can cause wide-scale devastation across national boundaries, as the Boxing Day tsunami demonstrated. Therefore, we hope that this theme issue will convince researchers and practitioners that global technical standards and uniform warnings are the best way to transfer tsunami science into society. The Fukushima accident is a sad example, where had existing published guidelines been adopted in the design, the impact might had been avoided.

Tell us a bit about your own research. What made you choose to study tsunamis and what have your career highlights been?
We are all engaged in tsunami research because our surveys of the aftermath of tsunamis have crystallized our resolve to help societies coexist with their tsunami hazards. We continuously find out that what saves lives in the most remote areas of the world is the ancestral knowledge. Hence, we try to educate the local residents whenever we visit disaster areas and through public outreach before tsunamis strike. We are engaged in research on tsunami forecasting, hazard assessment, warnings, and education. At least one forecasting methodology has gone through extensive testing, and is now officially in use by the warning centres. At different levels, we all took part in the development of this forecasting tool, which along with global advances in research and outreach would had marginalized at least the risks to human lives. The 2011 Japan tsunami dramatically showed that, sadly, we are not there yet. Never should there be a repeat of the Fukushima nuclear power plant accident, either triggered by tsunamis or otherwise, and tsunami science and engineering may help to produce robust standards even for other geo-hazards.


‘Tsunamis: Bridging Science, Engineering and Society’ will be published in summer 2015. To be notified when the issue is published you can sign up for article alerts.

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