The December 26, 2004 earthquake-generated Sumatra tsunami caused enormous losses in life and property, even in locations relatively far away from the epicentral area. The losses would likely have never been so massive had an effective worldwide tsunami warning system been in place. A tsunami travels relatively slowly and it takes several hours for one to cross the Indian Ocean, for example. So a warning system should be able to detect a tsunami and provide an alert to coastal areas in its path. Among the strengths of a tsunami early-warning system would be its capability to provide an estimate of the magnitude and location of an earthquake. It should also confirm the amplitude of any associated tsunami, due to massive displacement of the ocean bottom, before it reaches populated areas. In the aftermath of the Sumatra tsunami, an important effort is underway to interconnect seismic networks and to provide early alarms quantifying the level of tsunami risk within 15 minutes of an earthquake.
However, the seismic estimation process cannot quantify the exact amplitude of a tsunami, and so the second step, that of tsunami confirmation, is still a challenge. The earthquake fault mechanism at the epicenter cannot fully explain the initiation of a tsunami as it is only approximated by the estimated seismic source. The fault slip is not transmitted linearly at the ocean bottom due to various factors including the effect of the bathymetry, the fault depth, and the local lithospheric properties as well as possible submarine landslides associated with the earthquake.
In the open ocean, detecting, characterizing, and imaging tsunami waves is still a challenge. The offshore vertical tsunami displacement (on the order of a few centimeters up to half a meter in the case of the Sumatra tsunami) is hidden in the natural ocean wave fluctuations, which can be several meters or more. In addition, the number of offshore instruments capable of tsunami measurements, such as tide gauges and buoys, is very limited. For example, there are only about 70 buoys in the whole world. As a tsunami propagates with a typical speed of 600–700 kilometers per hour, a 15-minute confirmation system would require a worldwide buoy network with a 150-kilometer spacing.
Satellite altimetry has recently proved capable of measuring the sea surface variation in the case of large tsunamis, including the December 2004 Sumatra event. However, satellites only supply a few snapshots along the sub-satellite tracks. Optical imaging of the shore hs successfully measured the wave arrival at the coastline (see PHOTO), but it is ineffective in the open sea. At present, only ocean-bottom sensors and GPS buoy receivers supply measures of mid-ocean vertical displacement. In many cases, the tsunami can only be identified several hours after the seismic event due to the poor distribution of sensors. This delay is necessary for the tsunami to reach the buoys and for the signal to be recorded for a minimum of one wave period (a typical tsunami wave period is between 10 and 40 minutes) to be adequately filtered by removing the “noise” due to normal wave action.