And if the technology comes to Vanuatu and New Caledonia, a neighboring island nation, it could mean a big change in public safety. The two small countries are separated by an area where one section of ocean floor is actively diving beneath another, causing those frequent earthquakes and tsunamis. Residents may have a few minutes, or even just seconds, to respond to a tsunami alert. According to new modeling by the task force, presented at the American Geophysical Union conference in Chicago in December, a SMART cable across this “subduction zone” could extend that lead time to 12 minutes. It would also provide a second high-speed connection to the outside world for Vanuatu, reducing the risk of communication blackouts like the one that occurred last year in Tonga when a volcanic eruption severed that country’s only telecom cable.
“If we can give a community even five or 10 minutes of additional time, that can make a huge difference,” says Laura Kong, a member of the task force and director of the International Tsunami Information Center, a joint effort of UNESCO and the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Researchers have high hopes—and big plans—for SMART cables. In addition to the idea of a Vanuatu–New Caledonia cable, they are proposing projects in New Zealand, the Mediterranean, Scandinavia, and even Antarctica.
“This is a first step in achieving a long-term vision of instrumenting the ocean seafloor for climate and early-warning purposes,” says Howe. “This is the first time the deep ocean would be sort of opened up in this way.”
Christian Elliott is a freelance science journalist based in Chicago.