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Scientists creating meteotsunami warning system for the Great Lakes

Map of Michigan
A map of existing and proposed sensors in the pilot project.

Scientists are creating an experimental warning system for meteotsunamis in the Great Lakes.

Meteotsunamis are potentially dangerous waves that are driven by storms.

Eric Anderson is a physical oceanographer with the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory, with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“Meteotsunamis are a very particular kind of wave and we don’t yet have the ability to forecast when and where they’re going to occur,” he says.

Anderson says we have about 100 meteotsunamis a year in the Great Lakes, and dangerous meteotsunamis occur about every 10 years or so.

"If you’re standing on the shoreline, what they typically look like is a very rapid rise in water level and then retreat," he says. "It’s almost like a very quick flooding event that may or may not be associated with actually a breaking wave."

He says if you see that happen over the course of a few minutes, it could be a meteotsunami.

“The particularly dangerous part is when that rapid rise or retreat in water level happens, that’s a lot of water being moved in and out quickly, so you can have strong currents, you can have a damaging amount of force or power that comes along with that water movement," says Anderson.

He says the plan is to use a network of sensors that will detect abrupt air pressure changes, and use that data to try to predict when meteotsunamis will happen.

A meteotsunami is different from a seiche. Here's how you can tell them apart, according to NOAA:

Seiches and meteotsunamis are often grouped together, but they are two different events. Winds and atmospheric pressure can contribute to the formation of both seiches and meteotsunamis; however, winds are typically more important to a seiche motion, while pressure often plays a substantial role in meteotsunami formation. Sometimes a seiche and a meteotsunami can even occur at the same time. Seiches are standing waves with longer periods of water-level oscillations (typically exceeding periods of three or more hours), whereas meteotsunamis are progressive waves limited to the tsunami frequency band of wave periods (two minutes to two hours). Seiches are usually limited to partially or fully enclosed basins, such as Lake Erie. Meteotsunamis can occur in such basins but are also prevalent on the open coast. A single meteotsunami can travel long distances and influence a very large range of the coastline.

You can listen to the interview with Eric Anderson above.

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