A few minutes can make the difference between a natural disaster that claims many human lives and one that only accrues material losses. The goal for the Chilean Navy's Hydrographic and Oceanographic Service (SHOA, in Spanish) is to send tsunami alerts at the opportune time.
To meet this objective, SHOA developed tools and initiatives whose capabilities the institution brought to light at a workshop with global experts. In late 2017, military officers and civilian members of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC), whose coastal areas are at risk from the devastating giant waves, participated in a workshop organized by SHOA with the support of the Chilean National Emergency Office.
The APEC nations’ national tsunami warning centers assessed tsunami threats December 5th-7th, in Valparaíso, Chile. The workshop sought to share lessons learned to make progress on managing risks, exchange knowledge and experience to improve capabilities, and deal with upcoming natural events.
“Our intent was to grasp the state-of-the-art in terms of technological advances in decision support systems and the strengths and weaknesses of each of them,” Chilean Navy Lieutenant Commander Carlos Zúñiga Araya, head of the Oceanography Department at SHOA, told Diálogo. “And [it was also] to present this to the various APEC economies so that those in charge of decision-making would know that these [systems] are available and could determine whether this was something that would meet their needs.”
Chile sits on the Pacific Ring of Fire, the largest concentration of tectonic plate movement zones in the world—an incubator of tsunami-generating earthquakes that includes all nations with a Pacific coastline. In modern times, Chile suffered a number of seismic events that enabled the Navy to learn from these experiences.
The earthquake of February 27, 2010, was a decisive factor in prompting the Navy to improve its tsunami warning systems in the country. With a magnitude of 8.8 on the Richter scale, the earthquake triggered a tsunami that hit the Chilean coastal region of Maule with waves up to 15 meters high. Some 400,000 homes were damaged, and more than 500 people lost their lives.
“Since the February 27  earthquake and tsunami, SHOA has implemented tools […], initiatives, and innovations that beg to be replicated by other countries and that fill us with pride,” said Rear Admiral Patricio Carrasco Hellwig, director of SHOA. “This is all part of a self-imposed process of the entire SHOA organization—the concept of ongoing improvement over time—which is ingrained in every professional who works at the institution.”
The measures the Navy developed and presented at the workshop include the implementation of a new tsunami forecasting and warning system created in coordination with Federico Santa María Technical University in Valparaíso. “It works with a database of pre-modeled events […] which is validated against records of recent tsunamis,” SHOA told Diálogo in a release.
“Basically, the system uses pre-modeled tsunami, and, in the event an earthquake happens with a possible tsunami occurrence, the seismic parameters of the event are entered to determine the threat level.”
SHOA also expanded its sea level monitoring network from 16 to 42 stations. The stations along Chile’s more than 6,400 kilometers of coastline monitor variables such as temperature and pressure, which can detect crucial changes in the face of a tsunami threat.
Additionally, the Navy improved its procedures for delivering information to national and international authorities once notification of an earthquake has been received and tsunami risk confirmed. “Our biggest challenge is getting our assessment of the tsunami warning out within 5 minutes,” Lt. Cmdr. Zúñiga said. “For that […], we use all our tools and modeling systems to come up with the answer in 5 minutes. It then goes to the competent authorities who later […] take the proper measures, whether that be just evacuating the coastline or moving to safety zones.”
The advances the Navy made were well received by participants of the workshop, who hailed the measures implemented by this military force, which counts nearly 200 years of experience studying bodies of water. “This workshop has been an excellent opportunity to learn about Chile’s system from the standpoint of a tsunami warning center […] and to learn about the response to a natural event like this,” said Laura Kong, director of the International Tsunami Information Center, an organization established by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization.
“Showing APEC economies and invited experts where we stand was part of the idea,” Lt. Cmdr. Zúñiga concluded. “The progress our country has made left attendees of the event surprised.”