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Evaluating Tsunami Hazards to the Atlantic and Caribbean Coasts: Alberto Lopez-Venegas

Project Title: Evaluating Tsunami Hazards to the Atlantic and Caribbean Coasts
Mendenhall Fellow: Alberto Lopez-Venegas,
Duty Station: Woods Hole, MA
Start Date: October 1, 2006
Education: Ph.D. 2006, Northwestern University, Geophysics
Research Advisors: Uri ten Brink, (508) 457-2396,; Eric Geist, (650) 329-5457,; Homa Lee, (650) 329-5485,

Project Description: Tsunamis, resulting from either tectonic events or subaerial/submarine landslides, have been historically recorded in the Caribbean region since the 16th century (Lander and others, 2002). At least 91 reported tsunamis have occurred in the Caribbean basin since colonization by Europeans, and of these events, at least 27 have been well documented. In 1918, an earthquake occurring on the western wall of the Mona Canyon (M 7.5) between Hispaniola and Puerto Rico (Mercado and McCann, 1998) generated a tsunami that reached the western coast of Puerto Rico and caused extensive damage along the coast and hundred of meters inland. More recently, in 1946, the northern portion of Hispaniola experienced a major earthquake (M 8.1). The death toll of the 1918 Mona Canyon and the 1946 Dominican Republic tsunamis are estimated at 42 and 1,800, respectively. The tsunami that followed within a few minutes of an earthquake in the Anegada Trough in 1867 created 6-9 meter high waves in St. Thomas's Charlotte Amalie and St. Croix's Christiansted Harbors. Although the Atlantic Ocean is primarily surrounded by passive margins, regional tectonics nearby the Iberian peninsula are prone to cause tsunamis, as is the case of the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755, which reached the Caribbean and Eastern United States with considerable wave heights.

The number of casualties in these events exceeds those from the U.S. West Coast, Hawaii, and Alaska combined during that time. Today, a repeat of any of these events could potentially yield similar destruction for the area, given the increase in population since then. Large tourism cruise ships, petroleum carriers,
hotels, marinas, condominiums, schools, petrochemicals and power plants and others are at risk. The devastation from the tsunami and resulting effects could
cost several billion dollars in damage and cost associated with fire control, rescue efforts, clean-up, and reconstruction.

The Atlantic coast, although not at a risk of a near-field tsunami by thrust earthquakes, is at risk from far-field tsunamis and locally generated landslides,
such as the one triggered by the 1929 Grand Banks earthquake (M 7.2) that affected the U.S. and Canadian Atlantic coasts (e.g. Piper et al., 1999). In
addition, the continental slope of the U.S. shows evidence for many past slides, and the adjacent abyssal plains show giant sedimentation events, possibly from large submarine slides (Pilkey, 1988), whose recurrence interval has not been estimated so far.

These and other factors reflect the potential catastrophic events to which the Caribbean and the Atlantic are prone. Hence, knowledge of potential tsunami
genesis locations and their outcome must be evaluated a priori, in order to be prepared for their occurrence. To assess the risks and estimate with a higher degree of accuracy which areas are vulnerable and the likely damage extent, a detailed study of the bathymetry is to be obtained and updated. Proposed work includes detailed multibeam bathymetry surveys along the northeastern coast of the Caribbean plate, with emphasis on northeastern Hispaniola, the Mona Canal and the northern Lesser Antilles. These data, in conjunction to single-channel seismic reflection/refraction profiles and re-location of microearthquake activity will be used to identify active faults in the area and evaluate whether those faults are capable of generating tsunamis. Once candidate faults are examined, a range of fault geometries and parameters will be used to forecast and examine near and far fields effects.

Lander, J.F., Whiteside, L.S., and Lockridge, P.A., 2002, A brief history of tsunamis in the Caribbean Sea: Science of Tsunami Hazards, v. 20, p. 57–94.

Mercado, A., and McCann, W., 1998, Numerical simulation of the 1918 Puerto Rico tsunami: Natural Hazards, v. 18, p. 57–76.

Pilkey, O.H., 1988, Basin plains: Giant sedimentation events, in Clifton, H.E., ed., Sedimentologic consequences of convulsive geologic events,
Geological Society of America Special Paper 229, p. 93–99,.

Piper, D.J.W., Cochonat, P., and Morrison, M.L., 1999, The sequence of events around the epicentre of the 1929 Grand Banks earthquake; initiation of debris flows and turbidity current inferred from sidescan sonar: Sedimentology, v. 46, p. 79–97.

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