There has been significant effort over the past six years to improve tsunami preparedness, but more funds and research are needed to cut the detection time and ensure people know what to do if a tsunami strikes in this vulnerable region, it says.
"On any day, more than 500,000 people could be in harm's way along the beaches, with hundreds of thousands more working and living in the tsunami hazard zones," the paper says.
Over the past 500 years, 75 tsunamis have been registered in the region, but since the last large one in 1946, "there has been an explosive increase in residents, visitors, infrastructure, and economic activity along Caribbean coastlines, increasing the potential for human and economic loss", according to the paper.
Despite advances since 2005, when the intergovernmental organisation that is creating the CARIBE EWS (Early Warning System) was itself set up, the region still relies on the interim solution of getting warnings from tsunami warning centres run by the US National Weather Service (NWS) in Alaska and Hawaii.*
In 2010, the NWS, which is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), established the Caribbean Tsunami Warning Program in Mayagüez, Puerto Rico, as part of a three-phased project to create a tsunami warning centre in the region. There have been "significant advances" in the first two phases, which focused on tsunami education and earthquake monitoring, the paper says.
NOAA is now evaluating whether to proceed with phase three and to establish a regional tsunami warning centre at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez, or whether to consider an alternative solution.
“On any day, more than 500,000 people could be in harm's way.”
"A tsunami warning centre in the region would be best positioned to address all the technical and scientific issues associated with the issuance of tsunami alerts, and would also be most sensitive to the social and cultural diversity which is also key for an effective warning system," Christa von Hillebrandt-Andrade, manager of the Caribbean Tsunami Warning Program and author of the article, tells SciDev.Net.
"One of our greatest challenges and needs is increasing the preparedness of the tourism sector, with 40 million visitors a year, mostly concentrated along the shores," she says. "It is critical that the hotel and tourism sector be ready to respond to a tsunami event and emergency. The greater the concentration of lives and livelihoods a county has along its coastlines, the more vulnerable it is going to be to tsunamis, and it needs to plan and act accordingly."
The paper calls for more funding for educational resources because most coastal communities lack evacuation maps and notices, and all require ongoing education for residents and visitors on how to recognise and respond to tsunami warning signs.
Another concern is that the current tsunami warning system is primarily triggered by earthquakes detected by seismic stations, so a tsunami alert is unlikely to be issued in the event of a volcanic eruption or landslide not associated with an earthquake.
The paper concludes that, by funding these efforts further, "we will not only save lives and protect livelihoods from tsunamis, but will be better prepared for earthquakes and other coastal hazards".
Glen S. Mattioli, a professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, United States, tells SciDev.Net that the paper paints an accurate picture of the urgent need to tackle tsunami hazard in the region, where potential tsunami-generating events such as large offshore earthquakes and submarine volcanic eruptions could occur close to populated areas.
"Development of enhanced regional tsunami warning systems, improved education of at-risk communities and better coordination among regional stakeholders are all welcome and certainly somewhat overdue for the Caribbean region," he says.
Link to full paper in Science
*This piece was amended on 20 May 2014. The original said that the Caribe EWS (Early Warning System) was an organisation and that it was created in 2006.