New technology for predicting tsunamis

15 January 2019
Innovative measuring system for detecting tsunamis - North Sea coast also hit

At first glance, Helzel Messtechnik is an unremarkable company in the Hamburg Metropolitan Region. Yet, a closer look at the innovator on the outskirts of Kaltenkirchen reveals exciting developments. Hailed among oceanologists and meteorologists the world over, the company is a giant of measurement techniques, analogue signal processing and high frequency technology.

Founded in 1995, Helzel Messtechnik employs 15 staff and focuses on developing and producing measuring systems for environmental monitoring and oceanology. Its WERA ocean radar system, launched in 2001, is at the heart of the company’s endeavours. Over 30 countries now use the leading shore-based radar system for measuring ocean currents, waves, winds, issuing tsunami early warnings and monitoring maritime movements in coastal regions.

The company collaborates with international research institutions across the globe and its radar technology was instrumental in a project by the University of Hamburg to detect tsunamis and issue early tsunami warnings. Funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) in 2005, research results published in 2006 met with great worldwide interest.

New technology for tsunami detection

A global network of surveillance systems is now in place for tsunami warnings. Seismic sensors detect seaquakes, which are considered the most common triggers of tsunamis. However, not every seaquake triggers a devastating tsunami and false alarms are often sounded – too late or not at all. As a result, the responsible authorities are often wary of tsunami warnings issued by the monitoring stations.

A solution developed by the University of Hamburg takes an entirely different approach. Radar stations on the coast are used to measure the surface current of the sea in real time. These radar signals follow the Earth’s curvature so that the system is effective far beyond the horizon. The system exploits the fact that a tsunami shock wave creates a characteristic flow on the water’s surface, which the system detects and is considered a reliable indication of an approaching tsunami. Thus, it can be verified with a high degree of certainty whether a seismic seaquake actually causes a tsunami to move towards the coast at 800 km/h. When the research findings were published in 2006, Helzel was inundated with queries about its WERA system, which now has a 25 per cent stake of the global market. At present, WERA is used as a complementary technique in several vulnerable regions to reduce false alarms and dramatically increase the reliability of tsunami forecasts.

Tsunamis in Europe

Although largely unknown, tsunamis are not confined to the Pacific Ocean and can also hit the Mediterranean Sea in the shape of meteo-tsunamis. These minis tsunamis are not caused by seaquakes, but by weather events that impact the sea surface and trigger shock waves several metres in height. One such meteo-tsunami hit the North Sea coast of the Netherlands early on June 1, 2017 with enormous shock waves. Fatalities were not recorded as the beach was deserted at the time.

WERA offers all kinds of opportunities for environmental monitoring. The radar technology has the potential to pinpoint any ship leaking waste oil and polluting the sea along the entire west coast of Europe, if it were installed. The amazing inventive spirit in the Hamburg Metropolitan Region continues to spread and goes hand in hand with many successful innovations by SMEs.

Sources and further information

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