Scientists Evaluate Social Effectiveness of Tsunami Warnings

Scientists from the University of Hawaii have received a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to develop a “tsunami preparedness model” that can be used to enhance public safety in tsunami-prone regions. The award was made through NSF’s Human and Social Dynamics (HSD) Priority Area.

The group, led by geologist Bruce Houghton of the School of Earth Science and Technology (SOEST) at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, will produce a model that can be used as a decision-making tool by state emergency managers who disseminate tsunami warnings to the public.

The research team includes physical scientists, psychologists and social scientists from the United States, Thailand, Australia and New Zealand. It will aim to identify the most effective methods to alert the public.

“This research is critically important, because it looks at individual and social responses to existing technology,” said Dennis Wenger, program director in NSF’s Engineering Directorate. “It’s an excellent example of the multidisciplinary efforts at the heart of Human and Social Dynamics funding at NSF.”

Houghton adds that an understanding of warning signals and the implications of those signals “are often overrated by decision-makers in emergency management. As a consequence, public preparedness for events such as tsunamis is often overrated.”

During the tsunami that hit Hawaii in 1960, researchers showed that only about 5 percent of those affected reacted appropriately to the official alert sirens, although most connected the siren to the idea that a tsunami was expected, Houghton said.

“Public information about warning systems has traditionally focused on supplying accurate information, without considering the ways in which society interprets and uses that information,” he said. “There are likely several key social and psychological variables that influence preparedness. We’re hoping to learn what those are.”

The study will look at seven different at-risk communities across the United States. The regions chosen for study include Kodiak, Ala.; Ocean Shores, Wash.; Seaside, Ore.; San Diego, Calif.; the Florida Keys; Aguadilla, Puerto Rico; and Kauai, Hawaii.

“The U.S. plans to expand its tsunami detection and warning system across a greater area of the Pacific Ocean and the Atlantic and Caribbean, which illustrates a growing recognition of the potential for tsunamis to impact most of the U.S. coastline,” explains Houghton.

The communities were selected based on the degree of tsunami risk in the region from both local and distant sources, as well as the historical occurrence of tsunamis. Other criteria included the extent of tsunami education, with levels varying among the communities, and the presence or absence of a warning system.

The study will be include colleagues from Mississippi State University, East Tennessee State University, the University of Tasmania and the Institute of Geological & Nuclear Sciences, New Zealand.

From National Science Foundation

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