National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration
United States Department of Commerce


FY 2016

Evaluation of the relationship between coral damage and tsunami dynamics; case study: 2009 Samoa tsunami

Dilmen, D.I., V.V. Titov, and G.H. Roe

Pure Appl. Geophys., 172(12), 3557–3572, doi: 10.1007/s00024-015-1158-y, Published online (2015)

On September 29, 2009, an Mw = 8.1 earthquake at 17:48 UTC in Tonga Trench generated a tsunami that caused heavy damage across Samoa, American Samoa, and Tonga islands. Tutuila island, which is located 250 km from the earthquake epicenter, experienced tsunami flooding and strong currents on the north and east coasts, causing 34 fatalities (out of 192 total deaths from this tsunami) and widespread structural and ecological damage. The surrounding coral reefs also suffered heavy damage. The damage was formally evaluated based on detailed surveys before and immediately after the tsunami. This setting thus provides a unique opportunity to evaluate the relationship between tsunami dynamics and coral damage. In this study, estimates of the maximum wave amplitudes and coastal inundation of the tsunami are obtained with the MOST model (Titov and Synolakis, J. Waterway Port Coast Ocean Eng: pp 171, 1998; Titov and Gonzalez, NOAA Tech. Memo. ERL PMEL 112:11, 1997), which is now the operational tsunami forecast tool used by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The earthquake source function was constrained using the real-time deep-ocean tsunami data from three DART® (Deep-ocean Assessment and Reporting for Tsunamis) systems in the far field, and by tide-gauge observations in the near field. We compare the simulated run-up with observations to evaluate the simulation performance. We present an overall synthesis of the tide-gauge data, survey results of the run-up, inundation measurements, and the datasets of coral damage around the island. These data are used to assess the overall accuracy of the model run-up prediction for Tutuila, and to evaluate the model accuracy over the coral reef environment during the tsunami event. Our primary findings are that: (1) MOST-simulated run-up correlates well with observed run-up for this event (r = 0.8), it tends to underestimated amplitudes over coral reef environment around Tutuila (for 15 of 31 villages, run-up is underestimated by more than 10 %; in only 5 was run-up overestimated by more than 10 %), and (2) the locations where the model underestimates run-up also tend to have experienced heavy or very heavy coral damage (8 of the 15 villages), whereas well-estimated run-up locations characteristically experience low or very low damage (7 of 11 villages). These findings imply that a numerical model may overestimate the energy loss of the tsunami waves during their interaction with the coral reef. We plan future studies to quantify this energy loss and to explore what improvements can be made in simulations of tsunami run-up when simulating coastal environments with fringing coral reefs.

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