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Early-warning systems will be activated in the near future to warn Israelis in the event of a tsunami in the Mediterranean Sea, the interministerial committee dealing with earthquake preparedness decided last month.

The Mediterranean is one of the world's most dangerous bodies of water in terms of tsunamis - the giant waves generated by earthquakes under the sea, or as a result of a massive landside after an earthquake on land. Indeed, research has shown that one-quarter of all tsunamis throughout history have occured in the Mediterranean. Half of those events in this region have occured as the result of landslides following earthquakes in the vicinity of the Dead Sea.

After the disastrous tsunami in East Asia five years ago, it was decided to install warning mechanisms in the sea. The work is being coordinated by the director of marine and land sciences at the Infrastructure Ministry, who will be assisted by staff from the Israel Oceanographic and Limnological Research Institute.

The most recent Mediterranean tsunami occured six years ago, off the shores of Algeria, following an earthquake at sea. It caused a relatively small wave that hit 100 boats in the Canary Islands. About a century ago, however, a major tsunami caused tens of thousands of deaths in Sicily.

Research shows that a powerful tsunami is likely to hit the area every 120 years. According to Dov Rosen, of the oceanographic institute, a powerful earthquake can be expected in Israel in the next 50 years, and there is a reasonable chance of a sizable tsunami during this period.

Scientists at the institute have examined a number of such scenarios, including a powerful earthquake near Crete. Such an event could result in the flooding of, for example, Hayarkon Street in Tel Aviv, of Haifa's port and the city's Ha'atzmaut Street. The most serious threat would be the flooding of the cooling pools of the Israel Electric Corporation, which would result in an extended black-out.

Establishment of the early-warning system is the most important step in preparing for a tsunami in Israel. The first stage, to be completed in the coming weeks, involves upgrading the mechanisms that monitor the level of the Mediterranean, so that they can transmit real-time information about an impending tsunami. These stations are located on the coal pier off the Hadera coast, and in Haifa and Ashdod. According to Rosen, they will give a 90-minute advance warning that a tsunami is developing, following an earthquake in the area of Crete or Rhodes.

In case of a landslide following an earthquake in the area of the Dead Sea, however, the warning time will be approximately 10 minutes.

It has still not been decided how information will be transmitted to the public and what recommendations for action will be formulated.