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Spotlight on Tsunamis - Ongoing research, funding and opportunities

Published on 13 September 2023

Tsunamis are a natural hazard that have not received as much attention in Europe as many others. Professor Behrens explains the current research landscape and why preparedness for tsunami risks is important in Europe as well.

By Knowledge Network – Staff member

An applied mathematician, Professor Behrens has over 30 years of experience in the field of numerical methods for atmospheric and oceanic simulation. He explains to us the phenomenon of “tsunami”, related ongoing funding and research initiatives and how the Knowledge Network can help in this area. 

We hope to sustain the community effort by developing a business model for an association providing guidance and services in hazard and risk analysis for local communities and industry stakeholders as well as inter-governmental bodies. In fact, the COST Association that initially funded AGITHAR has awarded us a so-called COST Innovators Grant, to help us in this effort.

This project is financed as part of COST, the “European Cooperation in Science and Technology” (COST). What type of funding mechanism is that?

COST celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2021. It is an intergovernmental cooperation supporting scientific collaboration by funding meetings, research stays, expert exchange, training and scientific transfer. It has been financed by national funds and EU funding under various Research and Innovation Framework Programs such as Horizon 2020 and Horizon Europe.

COST Actions' gather experts from diverse disciplines around a specific topic in need of increased collaboration for solving urgent problems. AGITHAR for example consolidates methods in probabilistic tsunami hazard and risk analysis. Probabilistic methods have gained attention recently because they allow better quantitative assessment under large uncertainties. As you can imagine, it is hard to foresee where, when and with what magnitude earthquakes or landslides will happen. Probabilistic approaches allow us to prepare, with reasonable assumptions about recurrence rates and possible risks.

Are there any additional initiatives?

There are several, but I would like to highlight two, which I am personally involved in. In the context of the Digital Earth initiative of the ERC, I am participating in developing a tsunami digital twin component to be incorporated into the digital twin for geohazards (DT-GEO). And data and modelling capacities are made available to the scientific community through the European Plate Observing System (EPOS).

Do you see any gaps in research up to now?

In the COST Action AGITHAR, we assessed the research gaps together with about 50 experts from the community. The results have been published and serve us as a whitepaper for future research initiatives. 

Among the most pressing research gaps are data for landslide-induced tsunamis. Other gaps concern vulnerability data, in particular what factors are important to reduce tsunami impact on exposed coastal communities. These gaps were rated as hard to tackle, as well as highly sensitive with respect to the hazard and risk assessment outcomes.

In a second report we also evaluated gaps in the social context. The question was: “what are the current gaps in risk communication and management, and where can we find good practices?” Tsunami risk perception in Europe is generally low and a number of research and action paths out of this dilemma are sketched.

But a lot still must be done. In particular, fast evacuation plans, vertical evacuation procedures, planning for safe areas, redundant infrastructures, etc. are long-term efforts. And due to the scarcity of tsunami events, expertise is often limited. This makes the information exchange in an international context very important and fruitful.

What could the Union Civil Protection Knowledge Network do to help connect researchers and practitioners? 

Awareness is always useful. The fact that most people, including disaster managers, are not aware of the tsunami risk in Europe causes delays. So informing practitioners about some of the current events and potential future risks may help to raise awareness. 

The scientific community often lacks understanding for the needs of those working on ‘ground zero’. A very important factor is communication about uncertainty and on how to deal with it. A common understanding and mutual trust in the experience of each community is mandatory. 

When I was helping to set up an end-to-end tsunami early warning system in Indonesia – the InaTEWS system - I had very good experience with trans-disciplinary round table discussions, involving stakeholders from local decision makers, disaster management such as Red Cross, Fire Brigade, or Military, and scientists from diverse disciplines – physical sciences as well as social sciences.

Open, goal-oriented, and knowledgeable communication remains paramount in preparing for such disasters.


An applied mathematician with a PhD from Bremen University and Habilitation at Technische Universität München, Munich, Jörn has worked for 30 years in the field of numerical methods for atmospheric and oceanic simulation. He developed adaptive mesh refinement methods for atmospheric multi-scale phenomena. His fields of expertise are numerical geophysical fluid dynamics, high performance computing, and numerical solution of partial differential equations. He became head of the tsunami modeling group at Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI) in 2006. With his group, he developed the simulation component of the German-Indonesian Tsunami Early Warning System (GITEWS), in operation since November 2008. Since 2009 Jörn is a professor for numerical methods in geosciences at Universität Hamburg, Germany. He was a principal investigator in various multi-year tsunami research projects and currently leads the COST Action AGITHAR. 


About the author

The Knowledge Network – Staff member

The Knowledge Network editorial team is here to share the news and stories of the Knowledge Network community. We'd love to hear your news, events and personal stories about your life in civil protection and disaster risk management. If you've got a story to share, please contact us.