Marsaxlokk to host tsunami exercise next month

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It has been more than a century since a major tsunami hit Malta, but the residents and workers of Marsaxlokk are learning what to do in the event that a 1.5m high wall of water hits the fishermen village.

Shortly after 10 a.m. on November 5, the sirens will sound and everyone will have 45 minutes to evacuate to the heights before the imaginary natural disaster occurs.

The scenario, set up by the Department of Geosciences at the University of Malta, simulates a magnitude 7.9 earthquake in the Ionian Sea. A tsunami caused by this earthquake would take about an hour to reach the coast of Malta.

The exercise, organized on the occasion of International Tsunami Awareness Day, is part of a project, called Tsunami Last Mile, coordinated by the Joint Research Center (JRC) of the European Commission in collaboration with the Department of Civil Protection and the Department of Geosciences at the University of Malta.

It follows two tsunamis in the Aegean Sea on June 12 and July 20, 2017, which hit the coasts of Greece and Turkey. In both cases, the tsunami warnings did not reach the public in time. The JRC therefore designed a local tsunami warning network, organizing exercises in Greece, Turkey and now Malta to ensure the timely provision of warning information to the population in the event of a tsunami threat.

The system involves the installation of tsunami warning devices in the form of digital panels that broadcast warning messages, as well as sea level detection devices that detect the wave.

What is the probability of a tsunami?

Malta’s exercise, originally scheduled for May last, has been postponed due to restrictive measures linked to the coronavirus.

Pauline Galea, head of the university’s geosciences department, said it was very difficult to predict whether Malta will be hit by a tsunami in the future.

“It is not easy to say what is the likelihood of a tsunami hitting Malta, as it is a rare event. What we do know is that it has happened before, so it can happen again. So we have to be ready, ”she said.

The last major tsunami to hit Malta was on December 28, 1908. This was caused by a large earthquake near Messina in Sicily, causing flooding in coastal areas such as Msida and Birżebbuġa. Although the tsunami devastated Messina and Reggio Calabria, no lives were lost in Malta.

Galea explained that Marsaxlokk was selected for the exercise for two reasons: the village was most at risk as there was a high likelihood of a tsunami coming from the east. The south of Malta is also home to important infrastructure such as the power station and the free port.

“The situation on our island is different from what it was 100 years ago when the last tsunami hit,” she said. “Now there is a lot more at stake, so we need to be prepared.”

How would that work in real life?

The central Mediterranean is served by the Centro Allerta Tsunami of Istituto di Geofisica e Vulcanologia, Rome. It is a 24 hour operation with a mandate to monitor potential earthquakes and tsunamis and issue tsunami warning messages to subscribed organizations, including CPD Malta.

So, in the event of a real earthquake at sea that poses a tsunami threat, Rome would alert the CPD within minutes. This will trigger a procedure involving constantly updated communication with other important stakeholders such as the armed forces, police, health authorities and the local council.

To confirm whether a tsunami has been generated, real-time data from sea level measuring devices around the Mediterranean is analyzed. In Malta, Ċirkewwa, Marsaxlokk and Delimara stations are already online and feed data to a global measurement database of over 700 stations.

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