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Great Lakes Tsunami: Researchers push for early warning system

When you hear the term Tsunami, the Great Lakes might not come to mind.

But scientists say small tsunamis are already happening here, and they’re expecting them to get worse.

“So far, we have not prepared for it,” says Dr. Chin Wu “So our risk is really high.”

Dr. Wu is a professor at UW-Madison and a leading expert on meteotsunamis. Unlike traditional tsunamis, meteotsunamis are caused by weather, not seismic activity.

“They can come and go from nowhere,” he says. “When there is a storm passing the great lakes, there is a chance to develop the wave at the middle of the lake, eventually going and becoming a big wave.”

More than 100 meteotsunamis are documented each year on the Great Lakes. Most are small, with waves topping out around 3 feet. But Wu says they have the potential to produce waves of up to 20 feet. Strong rip currents are also frequently accompanying the storms.

“At that time they can sweep people out of the beach, it’s very dangerous,” he says.

“Also, they can have a strong wave impact on the piers, create a splashing to pull people out of the piers, which is a 1954 event in Chicago.”

That event killed 7 people. 7 more were killed in another on Lake Erie in 2003.

“The meteotsunami so far is very hard to predict, because they come very fast, and we have no information so far to quickly predict it,” he says.

Wu is looking to change that, working with a group of scientists to establish tsunami warning systems on the Great Lakes. Similar warning systems are already in place along the Pacific coast.

“Our warning system will be very similar to following the national standard, but we are looking at the weather instead of seismic disturbance,” says Wu.

Special buoys would be placed hundreds of feet off-shore, alerting emergency management if a meteotsunami was imminent. Wu says that would give people minutes to move a safe distance from the beach or coastline.

“We envision this will be distributed to the whole 5 lakes,” he says. “We do not need to panic about it, but we can more prepare for it.”

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