National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration
United States Department of Commerce


FY 2011

Detection of the 2010 Chilean tsunami using satellite altimetry

Hamlington, B.D., R.R. Leben, O.A. Godin, J.F. Legeais, E. Gica, and V.V. Titov

Nat. Hazards Earth Syst. Sci., 11, 2391–2406, doi: 10.5194/nhess-11-2391-2011 (2011)

Tsunamis are difficult to detect and measure in the open ocean because the wave amplitude is much smaller than it is closer to shore. An effective early warning system, however, must be able to observe an impending tsunami threat far away from the shore in order to provide the necessary lead-time for coastal inhabitants to find safety. Given the expansiveness of the ocean, sensors capable of detecting the tsunami must also have very broad areal coverage. The 2004 Sumatra-Andaman tsunami was definitively detected in the open ocean from both sea surface height and sea surface roughness measurements provided by satellite altimeters. This tsunami, however, was exceptionally strong and questions remain about the ability to use such measurements for the detection of weaker tsunamis. Here we study the 2010 Chilean tsunami and demonstrate the ability to detect the tsunami in the open ocean. Specifically, we analyze the utility of filtering in extracting the tsunami signal from sea surface height measurements, and, through the use of statistical analyses of satellite altimeter observations, we demonstrate that the 2010 Chilean tsunami induced distinct and detectable changes in sea surface roughness. While satellite altimeters do not provide the temporal and spatial coverage necessary to form the basis of an effective early warning system, tsunami-induced changes in sea surface roughness can be detected using orbiting microwave radars and radiometers, which have a broad surface coverage across the satellite ground track.

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