Articles | Volume 16, issue 5
Research article
31 May 2016
Research article |  | 31 May 2016

Tsunami hazard potential for the equatorial southwestern Pacific atolls of Tokelau from scenario-based simulations

Alan R. Orpin, Graham J. Rickard, Peter K. Gerring, and Geoffroy Lamarche

Abstract. Devastating tsunami over the last decade have significantly heightened awareness of the potential consequences and vulnerability of low-lying Pacific islands and coastal regions. Our appraisal of the potential tsunami hazard for the atolls of the Tokelau Islands is based on a tsunami source–propagation–inundation model using Gerris Flow Solver, adapted from the companion study by Lamarche et al. (2015) for the islands of Wallis and Futuna. We assess whether there is potential for tsunami flooding on any of the village islets from a selection of 14 earthquake-source experiments. These earthquake sources are primarily based on the largest Pacific earthquakes of Mw  ≥  8.1 since 1950 and other large credible sources of tsunami that may impact Tokelau. Earthquake-source location and moment magnitude are related to tsunami-wave amplitudes and tsunami flood depths simulated for each of the three atolls of Tokelau. This approach yields instructive results for a community advisory but is not intended to be fully deterministic. Rather, the underlying aim is to identify credible sources that present the greatest potential to trigger an emergency response.

Results from our modelling show that wave fields are channelled by the bathymetry of the Pacific basin in such a way that the swathes of the highest waves sweep immediately northeast of the Tokelau Islands. Our limited simulations suggest that trans-Pacific tsunami from distant earthquake sources to the north of Tokelau pose the most significant inundation threat. In particular, our assumed worst-case scenario for the Kuril Trench generated maximum modelled-wave amplitudes in excess of 1 m, which may last a few hours and include several wave trains. Other sources can impact specific sectors of the atolls, particularly distant earthquakes from Chile and Peru, and regional earthquake sources to the south. Flooding is dependent on the wave orientation and direct alignment to the incoming tsunami.

Our "worst-case" tsunami simulations of the Tokelau Islands suggest that dry areas remain around the villages, which are typically built on a high islet. Consistent with the oral history of little or no perceived tsunami threat, simulations from the recent Tohoku and Chile earthquake sources suggest only limited flooding around low-lying islets of the atoll. Where potential tsunami flooding is inferred from the modelling, recommended minimum evacuation heights above local sea level are compiled, with particular attention paid to variations in tsunami flood depth around the atolls, subdivided into directional quadrants around each atoll. However, complex wave behaviours around the atolls, islets, tidal channels and within the lagoons are also observed in our simulations. Wave amplitudes within the lagoons may exceed 50 cm, increasing any inundation and potential hazards on the inner shoreline of the atolls, which in turn may influence evacuation strategies. Our study shows that indicative simulation studies can be achieved even with only basic field information. In part, this is due to the spatially and vertically limited topography of the atoll, short reef flat and steep seaward bathymetry, and the simple depth profile of the lagoon bathymetry.

Short summary
Devastating tsunami emphasize the vulnerability of low-lying islands and coasts. Our risk assessment for the three atolls of Tokelau uses computer simulations of tsunami generated by a series of regional and distant earthquakes to inform a community advisory of a threat from tsunami flooding. Great earthquakes off northeastern Japan pose a potential threat, with maximum wave heights >  1 m, but villages remain dry. Informative simulation studies can be achieved on atolls with only basic field data.
Final-revised paper