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Published December 2021 | Published
Journal Article Open

Long-term ocean observing coupled with community engagement improves tsunami early warning


The 2004 magnitude (M) 9.1 Sumatra-Andaman Islands earthquake in the Indian Ocean triggered the deadliest tsunami ever, killing more than 230,000 people. In response, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) established three additional Intergovernmental Coordination Groups (ICGs) for the Tsunami and Other Coastal Hazards Early Warning System: for the Caribbean and Adjacent Regions (ICG/CARIBE-EWS), for the Indian Ocean, and for the Northeastern Atlantic, Mediterranean, and Connected Seas. Along with the ICG for the Pacific Ocean, which was established in 1965, one of the goals of the new ICGs was to improve earthquake and tsunami monitoring and early warning. This need was further demonstrated by the 2011 Great East Japan (Tōhoku-oki) earthquake and tsunami, which killed more than 20,000 people, and other destructive tsunamis that occurred in the Solomon Islands, Samoa, Tonga, Chile, Indonesia, and Peru. In response to the call to action by the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021–2030), as well as the desired safe ocean outcome (von Hillebrandt-Andrade et al., 2021), the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) of UNESCO approved the Ocean Decade Tsunami Programme in June 2021. One of its goals is to develop the capability to issue actionable alerts for tsunamis from all sources with minimum uncertainty within 10 minutes (Angove et al., 2019). While laudable, this goal presents complexities. Currently, warning depends on quick detection as well as the location and initial magnitude estimates of an earthquake that may generate a tsunami. Other factors that affect tsunamis, such as the faulting mechanism (how the faults slide past each other) and areal extent of the earthquake, currently take at least 20–30 minutes to forecast and are still subject to large uncertainties. Hence, agencies charged with tsunami early warning need to broadcast public alerts within minutes after an earthquake occurs but may struggle to meet this 10-minute goal without further technological advances, some of which are outlined in this article. To reduce loss of life through adequate tsunami warning requires global ocean-based seismic, sea level, and geodetic initiatives to detect high-impact earthquakes and tsunamis, combined with sufficient communication and education so that people know how to respond when they receive alerts and warnings. The United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction defines an early warning system as "a set of capacities needed to generate and disseminate timely and meaningful warning information to enable individuals, communities, and organizations threatened by a hazard to prepare and to act appropriately and in sufficient time to reduce the possibility of harm or loss" (UNISDR, 2012). In short, a successful early warning system requires technology coupled with human factors (Kelman and Glantz, 2014). In this article, we explore case studies from Japan and Canada, where scientists are leading the way in incorporating ocean observing capabilities in their early warning systems. We also explore advancements and challenges in the Caribbean, an area with a complex tectonic environment that would benefit greatly from increased global ocean observing capabilities. We also explore physical and social science interventions necessary to reduce loss of life.

Copyright and License

© 2021 The Author(s).  This is an open access article made available under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/), which permits use, sharing, adaptation, distribution, and reproduction in any medium or format as long as users cite the materials appropriately, provide a link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate the changes that were made to the original content. Images, animations, videos, or other third-party material used in articles are included in the Creative Commons license unless indicated otherwise in a credit line to the material. If the material is not included in the article’s Creative Commons license, users will need to obtain permission directly from the license holder to reproduce the material.


We thank Stephanie Ross, Jeff McGuire, Shane Detweiler, Mike Diggles, and two anonymous reviewers for their contributions and insights to this work. We thank Jennifer Matthews (UCSD) for her work on Figure 1.

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August 20, 2023
March 14, 2024