NARRAGANSETT, R.I. — December 7, 2005 — Two University of Rhode Island researchers will be featured in a Discovery Channel documentary, America’s Tsunami: Are We Next? airing Dec. 18 at 9 p.m. on Cox channel 24. A companion documentary, The Unstoppable Wave, which also features the URI scientists, will air on the same date on BBC-1 in the United Kingdom and on ProSieben in Germany. (The program also airs on Dec. 22 at 9 p.m. and Dec. 23 at 1 a.m.)
America’s Tsunami follows an international team of 27 scientists on a 17-day research expedition to study the seafloor near the epicenter of the earthquake that triggered the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami that killed more than 280,000 people Dec. 26, 2004.
The expedition was led by Kate Moran, a URI professor of oceanography and ocean engineering from North Kingstown. Also highlighted in the documentary is URI ocean engineering Professor Stephan Grilli of Narragansett, who led the expedition’s tsunami modeling team, and biologists from the Census of Marine Life, a global network of scientists whose international education and outreach programs are coordinated by URI’s Office of Marine Programs.
The documentary reveals geologic evidence of disturbances on the seafloor that triggered the tsunami wave. Surprisingly, the scientists found far fewer underwater landslides and generally less widespread disturbance than was expected given the size of the earthquake. “That might mean that we’re safer than we realize, because the material in that environment might be dissipating the seismic energy more than we thought,” Moran said.
The documentary will show the team of scientists using remotely operated vehicles and other techniques to investigate seafloor disturbances to determine if and how they played a role in the tsunami. One major underwater landslide they examined probably occurred more than 1,000 years ago, but in an area they called The Ditch they found large vertical displacements of the seafloor that were very fresh and were almost certainly the result of the Dec. 26 earthquake.
Scientific findings during the expedition enabled Grilli to refine his tsunami model to better predict the next tsunami. In the documentary, Grilli applies his updated model to a fault off the Oregon coast where seismologists have long predicted a large earthquake, possibly up to 9.2 in magnitude, could occur. The model predicts that an earthquake of that size could generate tsunami wave run-ups of up to 30 meters in some locations along the Pacific Northwest coast – almost three times higher than previously predicted – and significant waves could reach as far away as Japan and Russia.