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Tsunami: Why America's Coast Would Be Toast

Steve Connor | December 29 2004

It sounds like the plot of a fanciful Hollywood disaster movie. A dangerous volcano in the Canary Islands erupts, sends a giant tsunami travelling faster than a jet aircraft into the major population centres of America's east coast, killing tens of millions and wiping out New York and Washington DC.

But unlike the eruption in the 1997 film Volcano (which threatened in its tagline that 'the coast is toast') scientists believe the threat from the volcano of Cumbre Vieja on the island of La Palma is real, and that it could send a massive slab of rock twice the size of the Isle of Man crashing into the Atlantic.

The effect would be to generate a huge wave with the energy equivalent to the combined output of America's power stations working flat out for six months.

After travelling across 4,000 miles of the Atlantic for about nine hours the tsunami would hit the Caribbean islands and the east coasts of Canada and the US with devastating effect. It would stretch for many miles and sweep into the estuaries and harbours for up to 20 miles inland, destroying everything in its path.

Those scientists are warning that the US government is not taking the threat from Cumbre Vieja seriously enough and not enough is being done to monitor it. Professor Bill McGuire, the director of the Benfield Grieg Hazard Research Centre at University College, London, warned that Boston, New York, Washington DC and Miami could be virtually wiped out.

Professor McGuire said close monitoring might at best provide two weeks warning of the disaster but that despite knowing about the danger for a decade, no one was keeping a proper watch on the mountain.

The two or three seismographs left to pick up signs of movement in the rock were not capable of detecting a looming eruption weeks in advance, Professor McGuire warned.

"What we need now is an integrated volcanic monitoring set up to give maximum warning of a coming eruption. The US government must be aware of the La Palma threat. They should certainly be worried, and so should the island states in the Caribbean that will really bear the brunt of a collapse.

"They're not taking it seriously. Governments change every four to five years and generally they're not interested in these things," he added.

A monitoring station equip-ped to look deep into the heart of the mountain and spot the early signs of an eruption might cost hundreds of thousands of pounds. In comparison, the US was spending $4m (£2.2m) a year scouring the skies for kilometre-sized asteroids which were much less of a threat, Professor McGuire said.

The Cumbre Vieja volcano last erupted in 1949 and its western flank is highly unstable. It could literally split apart next time the volcano erupts, which could be at any time in the next 1,000 years.

Any evacuation plan would have to be based on the forecast of an eruption, since once the collapse happened it would be too late, he said. However, it could be a false alarm. Several eruptions could come and go before one of them sent the mountainside crashing into the sea in a matter of minutes.

Professor McGuire acknowledged that the decision to depopulate the US eastern seaboard would not be an easy one. "I don't honestly know how we handle that," he said. "As scientists all we should really do is advise people of what we think the risks are."

The wave front from the collapse of the mountain would spread out in a crescent, striking the west African coast with a wall of water more than 300ft high in two to three hours. Its northern side would also brush against Europe. Within three to four hours, a 33ft-high wave would smash into the south coast of England, causing immense damage.

Unlike a normal wave, the tsunami would not break rapidly but just keep coming, said Professor McGuire. "You're not talking about the destruction of the UK economy, but very serious damage along the south coast," he said. Trying to stop the mountain collapsing was simply out of the question, he said. He has calculated that it would take 35 million years to dig out the dangerous part of the volcano and move it away.