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Tsunami alert plans accelerate

January 4, 2005 By Helen Pearson This article courtesy of Nature News.

UN urges action and education while disaster is fresh in people's minds.

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Scientists and policy-makers are stepping up efforts to build a tsunami warning system in the Indian Ocean following the catastrophic waves of 26 December.

Experts agree that a system that could detect underwater earthquakes and alert those on vulnerable coastlines might have saved some of the estimated 150,000 people killed by the tsunami that swamped Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and neighbouring countries.

It's a social problem, not a technology problem.
Reid Basher
Platform for the Promotion of Early Warning, Bonn, Germany
Governments in India and Indonesia have already committed to construction of a warning system that could avert a repeat disaster. The issue will be discussed at a summit of affected countries to be held in Jakarta, Indonesia on 6 January and will feature at the UN World Conference on Disaster Reduction to be held in Kobe, Japan, later this month.

An international tsunami warning system already exists to alert countries bordering the Pacific Ocean, where the vast majority of the world's underwater earthquakes take place and where major tsunamis have hit as recently as 1964. But there has been little urgency to match this in the Indian Ocean, which has not seen a vast tsunami for over a century.

Social problem

In order to build a new warning system, several key components must be put in place. First, the region needs an extensive network of seismographs, which pick up the tremors from underwater earthquakes. Although some such sensors already exist, they need to be upgraded and their numbers increased.

Second, regional centres must be established to process and interpret the seismographic information in real time, and predict the likely impact and location of subsequent tsunamis.

Third, communication systems must be set up that can relay swift warnings internationally, regionally and then to local communities. This might involve, for example, messages sent to mosques that can sound an alarm siren. Finally, locals must be taught in advance how to act in the event of a warning and, if necessary, be provided with the means to escape to safe ground.

It would be unwise to put all the efforts into the Indian Ocean.
Vasily Titov
Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle, Washington
It is the education and social coordination that will be the hardest to implement, says Reid Basher, coordinator of the Platform for the Promotion of Early Warning based in Bonn, Germany. The platform is part of the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR), which is leading efforts to build an early warning system. "It's a social problem, not a technology problem," he says.

But experts are hopeful that a rudimentary warning system based on existing seismographs and upgraded communication systems might be up and running by the end of 2005.

Shaky ground

Researchers say there is a real possibility that another earthquake could strike in the Indian Ocean, although they cannot predict whether it will be tens, hundreds or thousands of years from now.

Basher says it is urgent that affected countries begin building an alert system as soon as possible, before they lose impetus. Public education programmes will be most effective while the disaster is fresh in people's minds.

The real difficulty in establishing the warning system is likely to be coordinating all the countries, people and organizations involved, Basher adds. At the World Conference on Disaster Reduction, organized by the ISDR, an additional half-day meeting is being scheduled to start planning and harmonizing efforts among these parties.

Most attention is focused on the Indian Ocean at the moment, but researchers warn that other regions at risk of tsunamis, including the Caribbean, the coasts of Central and South America and the Mediterranean, also lack adequate warning systems. "It would be unwise to put all the efforts into the Indian Ocean," says Vasily Titov, who studies tsunamis at the Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle, Washington.

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