Study eyes risk of big tsunami in Hawaii from mega-earthquake in Aleutians

Published: May. 13, 2016 at 8:58 PM HST|Updated: May. 14, 2016 at 10:03 PM HST
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(Image: Hawaii News Now)
(Image: Hawaii News Now)

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - A mega-tsunami in Hawaii generated by an Aleutian Islands earthquake with a magnitude of 9.0 or higher would affect more than 300,000 people, the state estimates, and cause some $40 billion in damage.

But how probable is an event like that?

A team of University of Hawaii at Manoa researchers spent five years trying to answer that question, and here's what they concluded: There's a 9 percent chance of Hawaii suffering a direct hit from such a mega-tsunami in the next 50 years.

In other words, rare but possible.

"These are rare events. They don't happen all the time but there is a chance for them and our effort here is to try to define what that chance might be," said geophysicist Rhett Butler, the lead author on the study, published this week in the Journal of Geophysical Research Solid Earth

Butler set to work studying the risks of a mega-tsunami in Hawaii after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, which killed more than 15,000 people.

Co-author Neil Frazer, a professor of geology and geophysics at UH-Manoa, said Hawaii shouldn't just be worried about earthquakes and tsunamis from the Aleutian Islands. But, he added, "this is the one that's more important because it's very close, so we have very little time to evacuate."

In fact, experts estimate that residents would only have about four hours to get to higher ground before a tsunami from an Aleutian Island quake were to reach Hawaii shores.

Butler says the study wasn't done to scare people, but remind them to be prepared and have an evacuation plan in place.

The next step for the team: Looking at the risk to Hawaii from tsunamis generated by smaller earthquakes in the Pacific.

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