Global team seeks to develop early warning system for quakes, tsunami

Experts believe the web of undersea cables that wrap around the world can be used to track earthquakes and tsunami.
Published: Dec. 29, 2021 at 5:03 PM HST|Updated: Dec. 29, 2021 at 6:01 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - About 1 million miles of telecommunications cables crisscross the bottom of the Earth’s oceans.

The University of Hawaii is part of a global team that’s looking to tap into those cables with SMART sensors to form a worldwide early warning system for earthquakes and tsunami.

“The basic idea is to get sensors into the commercial telecommunication cables that span the oceans, basically encircling the globe,” said Bruce Howe, research professor at the University of Hawaii’s Ocean and Resources Engineering Department.

He has been working on the concept for 10 years.

The idea is to add devices into the submarine cables that can detect motion and measure tsunami. It would give experts quick access to accurate data.

“If we can better predict that, and reduce false alarms and make evacuations more efficient, that in itself is economically very important,” Howe said.

Portugal is moving ahead with plans to install SMART undersea cables by 2025. Howe hopes the United States gets on board quickly. It could help to protect Hawaii.

“I would hope that within five years we could have at least a system in the North Pacific,” he said.

Right now, scientists rely on DART buoys for tsunami measurements. But their locations are limited. Deep ocean sensors can be placed everywhere that telecommunications cables are installed.

“By doing this, piggybacking on top of the telecom industry, with 170 years of experience, we can hopefully do this less expensively,” Howe said.

The international effort received $7 million in funding. UH is helping with plans to install an early-warning system in a new telecommunications cable that will go between Vanuatu and New Caledonia.

“The idea is that this will become a ubiquitous feature of all underwater cable systems in the future,” Howe said.

Three United Nations organizations are sponsoring the research project.

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