Portugal joins tsunami warning network

By Brigitte Leoni

Lisbon, 23 November 2017 - Portugal today joins France, Italy, Greece and Turkey as a National Tsunami Warning Provider in Europe covering the north-east Atlantic - the source of a devastating earthquake and tsunami which destroyed Lisbon in 1755.

The new system operational today in Lisbon, will strengthen early warnings for the 39 countries who are members of the North East Atlantic, Mediterranean and Connected Seas (NEAM) region under the coordination of the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

It is hoped that this latest addition to the system will encourage more countries to the Tsunami Early Warning Service. Currently, only 16 countries do so.

Tsunamis are rare events that happen mostly in Asia and Americas but also in other parts of the world. Portugal was hit by a devastating earthquake measuring 8.5 to 9 on the Richter scale back in 1755, which killed more than 70,000 people and triggered tsunami waves up to 5-6 meters high in Lisbon.

Experts predict that another earthquake may occur again and could destroy part of Southwest Portugal and Spain, affecting hundreds of thousands of people who live on the increasingly urbanized shores of the Iberian Peninsula.

The new Portuguese service provider housed at the Portuguese Institute for Sea and Atmosphere, (IPMA) can detect any earthquake striking the region and send the relevant information to the Portuguese authorities who will be able to alert people at risk within eight minutes, giving the authorities some time to order the evacuation of thousands of people to safe areas.

“The system provider relies on hundreds of sensors installed along the Portuguese shoreline that will be able to detect any ground shaking movement or water displacement,” said Fernando Carrilho, Director of the IPMA. “These sensors will send the information to the Portuguese authorities who will issue a tsunami message to communities and people at risk via text messages and sirens.”

The Portuguese coast is extensive with more than 943 km of coastlines in continental Portugal and some other 667 km of coasts in the archipelagos of the Azores and 250 km in Madeira. Not all are at earthquake risk but many are located along the Africa-Eurasia plate boundary, which makes them very vulnerable to seismic activities.

Portugal suffered two recent major earthquakes and tsunamis in February 1969 in continental Portugal and in January 1980 in the Azores killing some 80 people altogether.

“It is up to each country to subscribe to early warning provider. As an example, the new service provider operational today in Portugal will allow countries in the North East Atlantic region such as Mauritania, Morocco, Ireland, United Kingdom and France to benefit from the service if they subscribe to it."

The NEAM early warning system is one of the four main early warning systems existing in the world including those in the Pacific, the Caribbean and the Indian Ocean where the early warning system was introduced following the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, which killed some 230,000 people.

It is estimated that more than 130 million people live around the Mediterranean and more than 230 million tourists visit the region every year; people who could be potentially at risk if any tsunami happens today.

The increase of availability and access to multi-hazard early warning systems and disaster risk information is one of the seven targets of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, the global plan for reducing disaster losses by 2030.

Since the year 2000, more than 11 million people have been affected by tsunamis and this has resulted in some 250,000 deaths with the highest death tolls in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Japan, India, and Thailand.