January 3, 2005

Tsunami Threat Haunts the Atlantic

LONDON (AFP) -- Countries all around the Atlantic rim could be hit by killer tsunamis at any time between now and the next 10,000 years, the British government's chief scientific adviser said.

Writing in the Independent on Sunday newspaper, Sir David King said danger lies in the potential collapse of one of the Canary Islands, Cumbre Vieja, "a mass of rock off the coast of La Palma," into the ocean deep.

"Tsunamis caused by this would overwhelm the Canary Islands and batter the coasts of Africa, Europe and the Americas," King said, with Britain getting six hours' warning and the northeastern United States nine hours.

King based his warning -- a week to the day after the south Asian tsunami disaster -- on research by Steven Ward at the University of California in Santa Cruz and Simon Day at University College London, published in 2001.

They wrote that a volcanic eruption of Cumbre Vieja could trigger a "catastrophic failure" of its western flank, resulting in tsunamis that would hit nearby west Africa within an hour with waves as high as 100 metres (325 feet).

England and Spain would get off relatively lightly with waves of five to seven metres, as La Palma would bear the brunt of the tsunami heading in their direction.

On the other side of the Atlantic, however, Ward and Day estimated that Newfoundland, in eastern Canada, would feel the punch of 10 metre waves, with Florida being hit by waves of 20 to 25 metres.

The north shore of South America would meanwhile be battered by waves of 15 to 20 metres, the scientists said.

"In the past million years, dozens of lateral collapse landslides of a size comparable to the one considered here have been shed from volcanic islands in the Atlantic," the two researchers wrote.

"If our models are correct, tsunami from these incidents should have washed several times over most coasts that have good exposure to the sea."

King, a chemist by training who helps to shape science policy for Prime Minister Tony Blair (news - web sites)'s government, said it was likely that Cumbre Vieja would collapse "at any time in the next 10,000 years".

With that possibility, and the catastrophe in Asia, in mind, King said he endorses the idea of setting up a tsunami early warning system for the Atlantic Ocean.

"Surely now, when public consciousness of this issue is at its height, is the time to raise the question," he said.