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Hawaii experiences a tsunami.
27 February 2010

Fake I've always been fascinated by tsunamis and I have always wanted to experience one first hand.  Obviously I don't want to get caught in a huge tsunami but I think viewing a moderate tsunami from a safe location would be fascinating.  I've spent a lot of time studying how tsunamis work.  I've also seen plenty of pictures and footage of tsunamis.  Unfortunately, most footage focuses on the drama rather than trying to give a realistic sense of what it is actually like.  Tsunamis are nothing like the giant waves seen in the movies.

Living in Hawaii it might seem that my chances of experiencing a tsunami are pretty good.  So far though, I haven't seen anything.  Living at 2000 feet above sea level, we're not exactly in a tsunami threat area.  I spend plenty of time at the beach but tsunamis are surprisingly rare and elusive.

My brother woke us up at 5am on Saturday.  He lives in Colorado where it was already 8am.  The 8.8 earthquake in Chile had happened twelve hours before then but I'm guessing that he was just hearing the news.  The tsunami wasn't due to arrive in Hawaii for another six hours.  We still had plenty of time.

The first thing I did, once giving up on trying to go back to sleep, was check the internet for information.  The NOAA has buoys all across the ocean that can detect tsunamis.  I managed to find the raw, real-time data from those buoys.  More importantly, I found the tsunami measurements for cities along the coast of South America.  The highest wave there, in the first city hit by the tsunami, was 7.7 feet.  In the very next city, it was only 4.2 feet.

I'm not a tsunami expert but I know tsunamis don't get larger as they cross thousand miles of open ocean.  It was fairly obvious to me that the wave wasn't going to be a major threat to Hawaii.  It looked like no more than six feet at the absolute highest and probably more likely to be less than a foot by the time it reached Hawaii.  Watching the news though, they made it sound like it was going to be gigantic.  That's what happens on an otherwise slow news day.

Hawaii civil defense started sounding the tsunami warning sirens at 6am.  The sirens went off every hour at first then every half hour.  It's amazing how well we can here the sirens from way up on the coffee farm even though we're several miles away from the coast.  I've been surfing when the sirens were being tested and they are painfully loud when you're right next to them.  Kind of scary too when you're out in the water.  I had to reassure some tourists that it was only a test, no need to panic.

After breakfast and watching the news for a bit, I decided to continue my day as originally scheduled.  I had a farmer workshop scheduled and even though most people decided to not show up, we did still have some.  Too bad there weren't more people because it was a great workshop.

The workshop ended right before 11am and the tsunami was scheduled to arrive at 11:26am.  I had my camera and my goal was to find my way down to the beach.  I knew that would be difficult because they had evacuated all the low lying areas and closed all the roads.  I understand how powerful and dangerous the ocean can be so I wasn't looking to put myself in harms way but I also understand how tsunamis work so I knew there would be plenty of safe viewing places.  All I needed to do was get past the road blocks and overzealous cops.

It required some four wheel driving and a good personal contact but I managed to find my way to the ocean.  We stopped up high first, about 1000 feet above sea level, right as the first reports of the tsunami were being announced.  The reporters said they could see some abnormal current changes, as if the tide was going in and out, but that was about it.  From where we were I couldn't see a thing.  So we headed the rest of the way down to the ocean.  Here's what we saw when we got there:


Nothing.  Just another beautiful, calm day at the beach.  There are a few places, like inside a bay or along a coastal canal, where the tsunami was channeled and focused enough that people could see some unusual currents.  Out at the ocean though, there was nothing.  If we looked real hard we could maybe see the sea level changing slightly but it was so minor that it could have just been our imagination.  The regular waves were as calm and steady as ever.

Of course I realize that a false alarm like this doesn't mean that the next alarm will also be harmless.  In fact, the next time there might not even be an alarm.  Back in September 2009, there was a submarine earthquake near Samoa that generated a tsunami.  There was a tsunami warning put out for Hawaii but they never sounded the tsunami sirens.  A few hours after issuing the warning, they canceled it.  Hearing that it was canceled, I went back to work instead of heading to the ocean.  It wasn't until later that I saw pictures showing that the tsunami had arrived anyways.


It's hard to tell from the pictures but that's a good six feet of tsunami height, measured trough to crest.  Yet even at six feet it was harmless with no injuries and only very minor property damage.  The February 27, 2010 tsunami wasn't even half that and in most places it was only a few inches.  If they had been predicting a six foot tsunami there would have been all sorts of hype and panic yet when it happened without warning, it was no big deal at all.

Again, I realize that just because the Samoa tsunami was harmless doesn't mean that the next tsunami will be harmless.  It is amazingly difficult, I'd even say impossible, to accurately predict how large a tsunami will be.  Predicting it's arrival time is fairly simple, that's just the speed of sound through water.  Predicting the wave height though, that is highly dependent on the shape of the coastline and the local off shore topography.

A tsunami can be funneled and compressed as it enters a bay so there can be large changes in water height yet just around the corner it may not be visible at all.  Because of that, the only way to be super-safe is to evacuate everybody.  I just sometimes wish I could decide for myself how super-safe I need to be rather than relying on civil defense and the press to decide for me.

Oh well, I'll consider this whole thing a learning experience.  It was quite interesting to see how everyone would react.  Some people became quite nervous by the whole thing while others continued to operate logically.  More importantly, now I know how to find my way to the ocean even if all the roads are closed.

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