Numerical communication via logarithms: what do people know about earthquakes and tsunamis

13 January 2007

See if you can find the chain of causality here: a hoax-rumor of a predicted earthquake spreads around Hawai`i on 26 November 06, on 2 January 07 the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center issues a press release proposing a change of 0.2 magnitudes (no scale given) in the degree of earthquake needed to generate a tsunami warning, lastly but not leastly, Elle’s phone rang as we were headed into the Pink Martini concert last night (it was outstanding, thank you very much, and mahalo nui to Tim, Bill, and Melanie for sharing their tickets). The phone call was from Elaine in Seward, to say that after a magnitude 8-ish earthquake in the Kuril Islands, Alaska was under a tsunami warning. Apparently, we were better informed than most people in Hawai`i at that point.

As I hope you know by now, there was no tsunami. But it once again took a while for accurate information to get around. And, as Doug Carlson points out in his post, this one occurred at a fairly convenient time.

The warnings that were issued were for larger-than-normal tides and waves. If we aren’t doing a good job of warning people about tsunamis, let’s not start crying wolf about tide surges, please.

I’m not trying to incite worry here, but I do want to encourage everyone to think about what standards of service they would like to see from their emergency services organizations before the emergency. Also, is a minute change in what magnitude of earthquake triggers a tsunami a realistic public debate to have, when people still have a very uneven understanding of detecting and predicting earthquakes?

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