Jan. 16, 2005 – From the devastated rim of the Indian Ocean to the shores of the U.S. Virgin Islands, it took roughly 28 hours for the effects of a massive tsunami to be measured across the territory, according to an oceanographer from the University of the Virgin Islands.
UVI Professor Roy Watlington said this week ripples from the Boxing Day tsunami that originated near Sumatra were measured by tide gauges set up near the shores of St. Thomas and St. Croix.
Watlington is a researcher, who also teaches oceanography at the university. For the better part of a decade he has been researching the effects of global warming on Caribbean waters through the Anegada Climactic Tracers Study.
A little over two weeks since the Boxing Day tsunami killed more than 150,000 people along the coasts of 11 countries Watlington described the action of a tsunami so powerful it probably spanned the globe.
"What we probably would find is that the tsunami signal has gone around the world and then disappeared," he said.
When the Boxing Day tsunami rolled through the territory a little over a day after it was spawned by a 9.0 magnitude earthquake, the NOAA tide gauge in Charlotte Amalie Harbor measured a rise in the sea of 15 centimeters, or roughly a half a foot. Off the coast of St. Croix, Watlington said the rise in sea was roughly two inches, or 4.5 centimeters.
And unlike a typical wave, which might shift the tide for a matter of seconds, Watlington said this elevation lasted close to half an hour. "The tsunami signal could be measured here," he said.
It was an observation made possible with the help of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, which has been operating a network of tide gauges for many years, originally as an aid to navigation.
Watlington said one local scientist recently obtained the tidal records produced by those gauges on and around Dec. 26. The information represented tide changes recorded along the coasts of St. Croix, St. Thomas and San Juan, Puerto Rico.
From that record, Watlington said, a distinct pattern emerged.
In 2003 NOAA's Center for Operational Oceanographic Products and Services started a formal system of using information collected from the tidal gauges in other ways, among them, to provide tsunami warnings. The information gathered through the Coastal Oceanographic Applications and Services of Tides and Lakes (COASTAL) was also used to help emergency managers monitor storm surges in real time as a tool for plotting storm evacuation routes.
Watlington said any data collected from the movement of the tsunami remnants through the territory will be studied by students in this semester's oceanography class. But he said even basic science students know something about tsunamis.
"We have maybe 2,000 students who can answer some of these questions
already because they have taken Science 100 on the St. Croix campus and on St. Thomas campus. But the ones who will probably take more interest are the students in my oceanography class," he said.
Those students, Watlington said, will be asked to isolate the information that identifies the tsunami by sifting through the different measurements collected by the tide gauges on that day. "Those students are more quantitative. We can use more mathematics, more computers because they're not freshmen. They're advanced students," Watlington said.
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