No spot safe from tsunamis in the Mediterranean

No spot safe from tsunamis in the Mediterranean

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Large tsunamis may be rare around the Mediterranean but it's a danger that cannot be ignored, say experts.

VIENNA - Countries around the Mediterranean are unprepared to deal with tsunamis occurring in the region, geoscientists say.

Any region surrounding the Mediterranean sea, among them popular tourist destinations in Italy, Spain or Greece, could be hit by a tsunami within a few minutes, but warning systems are not in place, Stefano Tinti of Italy's University of Bologna warned.

"If a tsunami hits, there is no safe place in the Mediterranean," Tinti said in Vienna.

While Mediterranean countries have scientific centres observing earthquakes, these lacked equipment and authority to serve as national warning centres, Tinti said.

Large tsunamis, monster waves like the one which hit Indonesia, Thailand and India on 26 December 2004, are rare events in and around the Mediterranean but a danger that cannot be ignored.

In 1755 for example, a massive wave destroyed Portugal's capital Lisbon. The city was first hit by an earthquake, followed by a tsunami and fire. The historical part of the city of Lisbon has since been reconstructed (photo).

Tsunamis occur due to several reasons - seismic origins like earthquakes, volcanic activities or landslides under the sea being the most frequent.

A local tsunami, defined in the Mediterranean as hitting within a 100-kilometre distance from the source, can reach coasts and islands within minutes, making speed essential for warning systems, scientists said.

"Most fatalities are related to local tsunamis," Tinti told journalists at the annual meeting of the European Geosciences Union (EGU) taking place in Vienna this week.

A seaquake off Algeria for example created a small tsunami which reached Algeria's coast within 15 minutes. About 40 minutes later, waves were hitting Spain's Balearic Islands and 60 minutes later southern France.

"If a tsunami is very large we need to launch an alarm within 10 or 20 minutes ... and that alarm must be verified," Tinti said.

One important component missing is tide gauges connected in real-time to tsunami warning centres.

Seismic stations could determine an earthquake's location and magnitude, Tinti said, but whether a tsunami was occurring had to be validated by data from tide gauges on sea level changes or water displacement.

Such a network was not in existence, the geophysicist said, which also increased the risk of false alarms.

Greece installed its first two tide gauges on the island of Crete only this year, Gerassimus Papadopoulos of the Athens National Observatory said.

Seismically speaking, Greece is the most exposed country in the Mediterranean, followed by Turkey, the island of Sicily and Algeria. Today's tourism activities in the region could dramatically increase the number of victims in case of a tsunami.

Countries are lagging behind in making the political decisions in setting up warning systems and chains of information and command as well as deciding on where to establish regional warning centres.

"There is a lot of delay in the creation of national warning centres," Tinti said, estimating that the total cost of setting up a warning system in the Mediterranean would amount to no more than 40 to 50 million dollars.

Regional systems could not protect the local population, the scientists warned. This was the responsibility of national centres, which are not yet in existence, the scientists warned.

Scientists could not issue public warnings, Papadopoulos said. That decision has to be made by the authorities. He advocated closer collaboration between researchers and civil authorities, in particular local authorities in order to reduce time lags in case of emergencies.

[dpa / Expatica]

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