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Sound waves from big earthquakes such as Japan's could provide 15 to 20 minutes of advance notice before a tsunami hits
Along with seismic shaking, undersea earthquakes also produce low-frequency sound waves that travel through the ocean. The size of the sound signal is linked to the earthquake's magnitude.
"We've found that there's a strong correlation between the amplitude of the sound waves and the tsunami wave heights," co-author Eric Dunham, a Stanford geophysicist, said in a statement. "Sound waves propagate through water 10 times faster than the tsunami waves, so we can have knowledge of what's happening a hundred miles offshore within minutes of an earthquake occurring. We could know whether a tsunami is coming, how large it will be and when it will arrive."
The Japan Meteorological Agency issued a tsunami warning three minutes after the 2011 earthquake struck, but the agency underestimated the height of the waves. A revised warning of the bigger tsunami was sent out within minutes, but some residents did not hear or heed the new alert. In March, the country unveiled a new tsunami warning system with upgraded seismic sensors and offshore buoys to better track incoming waves.