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The BBC's Tom Heap
"The splash would make a wave nearly half a mile high"
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Professor Bill McGuire
The wave would take 6-8 hours to cross the Atlantic
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Wednesday, 11 October, 2000, 16:24 GMT 17:24 UK
Action urged over giant wave threat
Miami BBC
America's coast would be worst affected
Geologists have told the UK Government that the country risks being hit by a giant wave of water that could destroy many coastal communities.

Experts at University College London (UCL) have contacted the science minister Lord Sainsbury to warn him that a collapsing volcano in the Canary Islands could send a wall of water, hundreds of metres high, sweeping out over the Atlantic Ocean.

Their research suggests the Caribbean and the east coast of the US would take the brunt of the devastation, but high water could also submerge large parts of the west coast of Britain.

Although the event may not happen for thousands of years, the scientists think the government should take the issue at least as seriously as it has the possibility of the Earth being struck by a large asteroid.

Early warning

Last month, Lord Sainsbury took delivery of an expert report on the threat posed to our planet by so-called Near Earth Objects (NEOs). The report said the UK should lead the way in creating an early warning system to help defend the planet.

Dr Simon Day, of Benfield Greig Hazard research Centre, UCL, says the western flank of the Cumbre Vieja volcano on La Palma is unstable and could collapse during a major eruption. This might send half a trillion tonnes of rock crashing into the sea at once.

Modelling by colleagues in Switzerland shows that such a landslide could trigger a so-called mega-tsunami, which has an initial wave height of 650 metres (2,130 feet) and moves out over the ocean at speeds up to 720 km/h (450 mph).

By the time such a wave crossed the Atlantic, its power would have diminished but it could still wreak havoc up to 20 kilometres (12 miles) inland.

Smaller slides

Dr Day and colleagues believe the event is a real possibility. Now, the Geological Society of London has told the government that contingency plans should be laid and further research ordered.

Dr Simon Day: More research required
Professor Bill McGuire, a colleague of Dr Day, stressed there was no immediate prospect of the Cumbre Vieja collapsing.

"There could be five more summit eruptions before the western flank collapses,'' he said.

Dr Doug Masson, of the Southampton Oceanography Centre, also struck a note of caution. He said the landslide might not be as catastrophic as the modelling had suggested.

"A series of smaller landslides would cause big waves, but nothing like the scale which has been forecast,'' he said.

Record wave

Even so, Dr Day's team has urged Lord Sainsbury to consider the implications for Britain's coastal regions.

Two years ago, a huge tsunami, caused by a landslide under water, submerged large parts of Papua New Guinea, killing an estimated 2,000 people.

And in 1958, a cliff collapsed at Lituya Bay, Alaska, causing the biggest wave in recorded history

Dr Simon Day's work is featured in a Horizon programme to be broadcast on BBC Two on Thursday, 12 October, at 2130 BST.

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See also:

04 Oct 00 | Sci/Tech
Giant wave could threaten US
18 Sep 00 | Sci/Tech
Call for asteroid defences
05 Jun 00 | Asia-Pacific
Killer waves so hard to detect
20 Jul 98 | Asia-Pacific
Tidal wave kills 'thousands'
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