PUBLISHED: 10:04 AM on Wednesday, February 15, 2006
UAF presents 'Surviving a Tsunami' Feb. 20

  Elena Suleimani
After a massive tsunami struck Indonesia, much attention was focused on learning more about the destructive tidal waves, and how people can better protect themselves and their communities from these rare and deadly walls of water.

Yet even as the residents of coastal areas become more aware of the destruction that can be caused by tsunamis, there is a concern that as time passes, this interest will fade and future generations will be unprepared for another such catastrophic event.

"The most important thing that people in coastal areas need to learn is that knowledge is safety," said Elena Suleimani, a research analyst at the Geophysical Institute, University of Alaska Fairbanks. "Nothing is more important than knowing what to do when you think that there is a tsunami coming-it's the difference between life or death."

"Because tsunamis are very rare events, people tend to forget about them," she said. "They may not occur for a couple of generations, which means that if parents haven't passed their knowledge on to their children, that generation will not be prepared."

To help people in Alaska better prepare for this potential disaster, Suleimani will be in Juneau on Monday, Feb. 20, to present "Surviving a Tsunami: Is Alaska Ready for the Next Big Wave?"

This presentation is part of the free Science for Alaska Series, which is sponsored by the UAF Geophysical Institute.

Suleimani, who is originally from Russia, has primarily been engaged in research on the nonlinear dynamics of ocean waves and has also studied numerical modeling of tsunami waves at the Institute of Marine Sciences at UAF. Most recently, her studies have focuses on tsunami inundation mapping for coastal communities within Alaska. Though this was not her original field of study, her involvement in a tsunami-related science project piqued her interest.

"I was in my third year of study at the University in Russia when I came into class late," she said with a laugh. "There were 10 subjects assigned to a group of 10 students, and when I got there, the only subject left was the 'detection of tsunamigenic earthquakes from seismographs.' At the time, I didn't know what tsunamigenic meant-but I found that I liked the subject."

Suleimani's studies have helped her to become an expert on tsunamis, and she is happy to share her knowledge with others, especially those Alaskans who were not around in 1964 when the state was heavily damaged by an earthquake and the resulting walls of water.

"There has really been very little damage in terms of tsunamis in the 40 or so years since the '64 earthquake," Suleimani said. "There was some wave action in 1986 in Adak, and a landslide-generated wave in Skagway in 1994, but other than that, the newer generation knows nothing about the damage a tsunami can cause. But there is no doubt one will happen again."

Tsunamis in southeast Alaska take two different forms. Distant tsunamis are waves that come from other locales, including Japan and other areas of the Pacific.

The damages from these waves can be calculated far in advance, and Alaskan coastal areas can be warned of the waves' approach. Other tsunamis, which are generated by local underwater landslides, can strike without any warning.

"The tsunami that killed a person and damaged a dock in Skagway in 1994 was started by a local landslide when a huge mass of material underneath the water shifted, generating a wave," Suleimani said.

Several things can cause a tsunami, including the most common, which is an underwater earthquake of a 7.0 or higher magnitude. Tsunamis can also be caused by underwater volcanic eruptions or earthquakes on the subduction zone, which can result in the sudden uplift of the ocean floor causing a series of waves. In Alaska, earthquakes on the Alaska-Aleutian subduction zone have resulted in widespread damage along the Pacific coast.

Depending on an earthquake's magnitude, the Alaska Tsunami Warning Center in Palmer stands ready to warn coastal cities of tsunami danger within five minutes of the quake. Unfortunately, there is no way for the Center to be able to warn communities of waves generated by local landslide events.

"If you live in a coastal area, you need to watch for unusual behavior of the ocean," Suleimani said. "If the water recedes for no reason, much more quickly than a tide, you need to get to higher ground. In some communities, they actually have signs to direct you to safer ground, out of the inundation zone."

Suleimani cautions that waiting until officials issue a warning to get to higher ground is not a good idea.

"In Thailand, a young girl at a resort saw the water receding and told her parents that they needed to get to higher ground. She'd learned this in her geography class. Luckily, her parents took her seriously and told the resort manager, and they were able to clear the whole beach, saving about 200 lives. You only have minutes when you see the water receding - enough time to run," she said. "And if you see the wave, it's too late. The water moves much faster than anyone can move."

Once on higher ground, Suleimani advises people to be patient, and not to assume that things are safe until hearing an official 'all clear' or waiting roughly 12 hours.

"In the case of Indonesia and the 1964 Alaskan earthquake, there was wave action for 12 hours or more," she said. "The first wave isn't always the biggest wave, and they don't always come at intervals of seconds-they can take minutes or more."

Suleimani's presentation will be at 7:30 p.m. at Centennial Hall. There is no cost to attend. For more information on tsunamis, go online to