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Scientists want to create a warning system for freshwater tsunamis

Courtesy of NOAA
A map of meteotsunami events in the Great Lakes.

This week, experts are getting together in Ann Arbor to make a warning system for meteotsunamis in the Great Lakes. We have on average 106 meteotsunamis in the lakes each year.

Brad Cardinale directs the Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research. He says the kind of tsunamis that happen in the ocean occur when an earthquake lifts the sea bed, creating a massive and rapidly moving wave.

But Cardinale says tsunamis can happen in freshwater systems too. In the Great Lakes, they're known as meteotsunamis, and they can happen when there's a big storm event.

“So when there’s a really intense storm in the Great Lakes that forms quickly, that storm can push down on the surface of the water much like if you took a balloon and squished it down in your bathtub, and it can displace water and form a large wave that can travel fast and hit our coastal zones," he says.

Meteotsunamis are different from seiches, which are wind-driven waves (as an analogy, think of wind from a fan moving water in your bathtub). Cardinale says meteotsunami waves can be much bigger and more damaging than seiches.

Cardinale says meteotsunamis can damage coastlines and disrupt commercial shipping. They can even be deadly, and have been known to sweep people out into stormy waters.

He points out that there is an even greater potential for danger.

“We have seven nuclear power plants that are right on the coastlines of the Great Lakes. And if any one of these were to experience a direct hit from a meteotsunami, we could potentially have a disaster. And that’s why we feel like we need a warning system,” he says.

Cardinale says the areas most at risk from meteotsunamis are Chicago and Buffalo.

And so, scientists want to develop a warning system to try to prevent a future tragedy.

“We envision a set of buoys and sensors throughout the Great Lakes that can detect when and where we get a big storm event, one that would be big enough to push down on the surface of the water,” says Cardinale. “The buoys would then be able to tell us whether we have a traveling wave, how fast it’s going and what direction it’s going.”

But it's unclear whether funding agencies will be able to financially support the project. Cardinale notes that President Trump’s administration has threatened a number of budget cuts to agencies like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“So if those funding cuts occur, I can pretty much guarantee you that we won’t be able to put those warning systems in place. But if our Congress prioritizes the science and says that protecting people from these things is important, this could be done in five years,” he says.

Rebecca Williams is senior editor in the newsroom, where she edits stories and helps guide news coverage.
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