In wake of tsunami, signs of a space-based warning system

Scientists in Hawaii stumbled upon a new way to detect tsunami waves by as much as an hour in advance.

Researchers on the Hawaiian island of Maui have discovered a signature of tsunami waves that could help in the development of a space-based warning system, according to a new report.

The Honolulu Star Advertiser reports that scientists at the Air Force Maui Optical and Supercomputing Station captured in photos a "glow" caused by atmospheric pressure disturbances generated by the March 11 tsunami that devastated Japan.

The problem with detecting such waves is that they move quickly -- 500 miles per hour -- without detection: on the open ocean, they're a mere inch tall.

But a team of scientists from France, Brazil and the U.S. say the waves put pressure on the atmosphere -- allowing for better detection.

Jim Borg reports:

"The atmosphere gets less and less dense as you get higher, and that allows the amplitude of the wave to grow," Jonathan Makela, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, said by phone Thursday.

At an altitude of 155 miles, the wave pressure interacts with the charged plasma of the ionosphere, which creates a faint red glow, Makela said.

It's nothing you can see with the naked eye, but this ionospheric "chemiluminescence" preceded the March 11 wave by about an hour -- offering hope for earlier warning of an impending destructive event.

Scientists currently rely on ocean buoys and models to track and predict the path of a tsunami. A camera in geosynchronous orbit could be the next step.

A look, in a video:

Their findings appear in the online edition of Geophysical Research Letters.

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