False Tsunami Warning

Some people on the East Coast got a push alert on their phones Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2018, about a tsunami warning, but the National Weather Service says it was just a test. Meteorologist Hendricus Lulofs said there was a glitch Tuesday during a routine test. (AP Photo/Jeremy DaRos)

On Tuesday morning, some residents from the East Coast down through the Caribbean, including folks along the Gulf Coast, received a push alert on their cellphones about a tsunami warning — an alert sent in error. 

The National Weather Service sent out what they called a "routine tsunami test" about 9 a.m. The alert was incorrectly picked up by a computer algorithm for private company AccuWeather and pushed out as an actual tsunami warning, the company said.

But the inaccurate warning had some wondering if conditions in the Gulf Coast — the home of some of the world's most powerful and destructive hurricanes — could also generate a tsunami? Turns out, yes. 

But don't be too alarmed yet. 

"(Tsunamis) are going to be secondary to the hurricane, and it's a fairly distant second in my opinion," said Patrick Lynett, a coastal engineer and professor of civil engineering at the University of Southern California. 

Lynett was part of a team in 2009 that studied the chance that tsunamis could form in the Gulf of Mexico, and while they found there are properties that make it a possibility, he said they have not ever known it to happen.

Tsunamis are typically formed in areas with a hotbed of seismic activity, like much of the ocean off the West Coast and into Asia, after a large earthquake creates a large wave. In 2004, a 9.1 magnitude earthquake in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Indonesia spawned a massive tsunami that claimed the lives of more than 200,000 people across 14 countries.

Tsunamis also can form from any kind of disturbance in the water, including underwater landslides. 

"In the Gulf of Mexico, we see evidence of large underwater landslides and these … have the potential to generate tsunamis," Lynett said. Nevertheless, he said, scientists have not been able to confirm that any of these landslides in the Gulf have ever formed a tsunami. 

And while the actual threat of a traditional tsunami is, as far as experts can tell, very small in the Gulf of Mexico, Louisiana often experiences a different natural phenomenon that is similar to the powerful waves, said Chip Groat, the acting director of the Louisiana Geological Survey at LSU.

"A 9-foot storm surge or more, that's very much like a tsunami," Groat said. "It may not be a tsunami, but it could be tsunami-like." 

While a tsunami forming from an earthquake is almost just as rare for the East Coast as the Gulf Coast, Lynett said that region has a small threat that comes from a earthquake occurring across the Atlantic in Portugal or the Caribbean, which could send a tsunami across the ocean.  

Eric Geist, a research geophysicist for the U.S. Geological Survey, said another type of tsunami which could become a hazard in the Gulf of Mexico is a phenomenon known as the meteotsunami. 

"They're caused by a fast moving atmospheric system, like squalls," Geist said. "They behave a lot like a tsunami, but the generation is different." 

While he said they are nothing like the massive tsunamis that have devastated Japan and Indonesia, they can cause some damage. Most recently, a meteotsunami formed in Naples, Florida in 2016 during a severe storm. 

So for now, the National Weather Service is not too concerned about actual tsunamis hitting the Gulf Coast, said meteorologist Ken Graham, in the NWS Slidell office. 

"It's something that we don't normally deal with," Graham said. 

They will, instead, be investigating why AccuWeather released the incorrect information about a tsunami warning, as the test was not disseminated by the National Weather Service on any public platforms, the organization said in a statement Tuesday. 

"We're currently looking into why the test message was distributed by at least one private-sector company," the NWS statement says. 

Although the National Weather Service had the word "TEST" multiple times in the head of the message, AccuWeather said the code accompanying the message was the code used for an actual warning, and its computer system picked up that portion of alert. 

"We are continuing to work with NWS to determine why this coding was improperly embedded in its test alert system," AccuWeather wrote in a statement. 

Follow Grace Toohey on Twitter, @grace_2e.

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