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Tsunami Warnings and Getting it wrong

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This morning a large earthquake hit the Solomon Islands and generated a tsunami.

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center was quick to respond with a watch/warning advisory issued within 6 minutes. Australia was one of the countries included in the watch area. The Australian Tsunami Warning Centre (which is jointly run by the Bureau of Meteorology and Geoscience Australia) issued its own advice that there was ‘No Threat’ to Australia.

This didn’t stop many Australian media outlets from mentioning the PTWC advisory in their coverage of the earthquake/tsunami.

Ninemsn.com.au was the worst offender leading with a headline: “Australia on Tsunami Watch”. The fact that the Australia Tsunami Warning Centre had determined there was no threat to Australia was left as a mere footnote in the article.

The PTWC says on its products that they’re mainly advice to Government agencies and that people should refer to them for the official state of alert and any response actions.

Whilst I can understand global media organisations referring primarily to PTWC advice for reasons of speed there’s really no excuse for Australian media to mention or even lead with that advice particularly as they all mentioned the advice from the Australian Tsunami Warning Centre.

Such reporting promotes confusion and could lead people to ignore warnings in a future event where there is a threat to Australia.

However the media organisations aren’t the only ones promoting inconsistency. Many countries in the Pacific Basin operate their own tsunami warning systems, some which depend on the PTWC and others, like Australia, which make their own determinations. In this age of instant information and internet communications its not acceptable for there to be disagreement between national advice and the PTWC bulletins.

It should be relatively straightforward for the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center to develop communication protocols with national centres to ensure PTWC advisories reflect the warning statuses in those countries. This should not prevent the PTWC from issuing a watch/warning where a country’s status is unknown, but allow for corrections in subsequent bulletins.

Here’s the text of the ninemsn article  (please note it is copyright) as it was subsequently changed:

A tsunami watch has been issued for Australia and a number of other Pacific nations after a powerful earthquake struck off the Solomon Islands today.

The 8.0-magnitude quake struck at 12.12pm (AEDT) at a depth of 5.6km at the Santa Cruz Islands between the Solomons and Vanuatu, the US Geological Survey (USGS) reported.

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre (PTWS) has reported that 103cm waves have struck the town of Lata on Santa Cruz Island.

In the capital Honiara, an 8cm wave has washed ashore, with no damage reported.

A hospital director told AFP that some villages were destroyed by the earthquake, but no damage has yet been reported from the tsunami.

“The information we are getting is that some villages west and south of Lata along the coast have been destroyed, although we cannot confirm this yet,” the director said.

People in the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu should move to higher ground, the PTWS’s Nathan Becker has warned.

“The areas that are closest to the earthquake would be the Santa Cruz Islands, but above those the Solomons and Vanuatu are the next closest island groups,” Mr Becker said.

“People in those areas should definitely be clearing the beaches and moving to higher ground.”

The PTWS put Australia on a watch alert, but the Bureau of Meteorology has said the country is not at risk of a tsunami.

The quake followed a 6.3-magnitude earthquake that struck the same area earlier today.

The tsunami warning has been issued for the Solomons, Vanuatu, Naura, Papua New Guinea, Tuvalu, New Caledonia, Fiji and Kiribati.

A lower-level watch alert is in effect for Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, Samoa, New Caledonia, Tonga and Guam.

The Solomon Islands are part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, a long stretch of earthquake-prone areas reaching from New Zealand up through Indonesia, the Philippines, Japan, Alaska and down the Americas to Chile.

More to come.

Author: Nick Pearson. Approving editor: Mark Worley.

Sources: Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre, US Geological Survey

Timeline of Events


1212/0112 – Earthquake occurs

1218/0118 – PTWC issues first bulletin, includes Australia in Watch area

1230/0130 – ATWC Issues ‘No Threat’ Bulletin

1246/0146 – Ninemsn posts Story on Tsunami

1249/0149 – PTWC issues update, Australia still in Watch area

1312/0212 – PTWC issues update, Australia still in Watch area

1352/0252 – PTWC issues update, Australia still in Watch area

1407/0307 – PTWC issues update, Australia still in Watch area

1416/0316 – PTWC issues update, Australia still in Watch area

1447/0347 – PTWC cancels watch/warning

1500/0400 – Ninemsn updates its story, noting watch cancellation


1 Comment

  1. Vividhunter says:

    A lot of media outlets craft ‘click-bait’ headlines to generate more revenue and it’s bloody annoying to get caught out reading an article completely different to the one the headline promises.

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