Although the probability is small, Hawaii is in danger of being hit by a devastating tsunami triggered by a mega-earthquake in the Aleutian Islands. Is the state prepared?
Scientists from the University of Hawaii at Manoa have validated their predictions for the possibility of such an occurrence in the Central Pacific. In the end, they found that although the occurrence is rare, there is a 9 percent chance that a tsunami could strike Hawaii.
"These are rare events," says Rhett Butler, geophysicist at Hawaii Institute of Geophysics and Planetology. "They don't happen all the time but there is a chance for them."
What Could Happen When The Big One Strikes?
In 2011, a colossal tsunami triggered by a magnitude 9.0 earthquake ravaged eastern Japan.
Paleo-seismologist Chris Goldfinger of Oregon State University, who had confirmed in a past study that this can also happen in the Pacific Northwest, says the occurrence would be equivalent to five or six Hurricane Katrinas pouring down all at once.
If the magnitude 9.0 mega-earthquake does hit the Aleutian Islands, scientists estimate the damage would cost $40 billion and devastate more than 300,000 residents.
Tsunamis And Mega-Earthquakes In Hawaii's History
Meanwhile, Butler has been studying the likelihood of earthquakes and tsunamis in Hawaii for a long time.
In 2014, a pile of marine debris that he and his team found in a giant sinkhole provided evidence that at least one mammoth tsunami had struck the archipelago.
With the help of computer models, the research team estimated that the gigantic tsunami that devastated the island about half a millennium ago had a wall of water of up to 30 feet or nine meters high.
Similar to the research they released this year, Butler and his team found that the tsunami had been triggered by a magnitude 9.0 earthquake off the coast of the Aleutian Islands.
The vicious tsunami, which was at least thrice the size of a 1946 tsunami in Hawaii's recent history, left behind up to nine shipping containers worth of ocean sediment in the sinkhole on Kauai Island, researchers said.
Is Hawaii Prepared?
Because of Butler's 2014 research, the city of Honolulu has updated and improved its tsunami evacuation maps to include the possibility of a colossal tsunami.
Gerard Fryer, a geophysicist who was not involved in the 2014 study, convinced the county to do so.
"I've seen the deposit," said Fryer. "I'm absolutely convinced it's a tsunami, and it had to be a monster tsunami."
Fryer said it is right to prepare for the worst tsunami that will likely happen in a thousand years.
Like Fryer, Butler says a yearly risk assessment can definitely help officials in Hawaii prioritize the human and financial impact of a mega tsunami. Current evacuation plans are based in part on the 1946 tsunami.
There is also about four hours to get to higher ground before the tsunami triggered by the Aleutian Islands quake hits the shores of Hawaii.
Additionally, Butler's research is a step forward and not meant to scare people, but to remind them to prepare an evacuation plan.