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Indian Ocean tsunami warning system plugged in

June 30, 2006 By Quirin Schiermeier This article courtesy of Nature News.

Alerts can now be issued to governments, but will the word get to the people?

Eighteen months after a deadly tsunami killed more than 200,000 people in the region, a tsunami early warning system for the Indian Ocean is now up and running.

But the downstream flow of information from local authorities to the populations and communities most at risk is still unresolved, so the system may not yet be capable of saving lives.

The state-of-the-art system, set up and coordinated by the United Nations Economic, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), consists of a seismic network, a set of buoys deployed throughout the Indian Ocean, and several deep-ocean pressure centres that measure the power and propagation of waves.

All data are transmitted in real time to the existing tsunami warning centres in Japan and Hawaii, which have traditionally focussed on the Pacific. If a potentially tsunami-generating quake occurs in the Indian Ocean, these centres will issue a warning to the authorities in 24 countries around the Indian Ocean. Four countries, Somalia, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, are not yet linked into the system.

To the people

But these countries still need to find the best way to get the information out to the people. If a tsunami were to strike tonight, millions living near beaches around the Indian Ocean would still not be alerted in time, says UNESCO spokeswoman Sue Williams.

"It is the last and crucial mile which is still missing," she says. "Some countries, such as Australia, India and Malaysia, are more active than others. But we are not sure how many do actually have the capacity of warning people before a tsunami hits the beach." Coastal populations could be warned by sirens, for example.

Even in countries where dissemination systems are in place, they may not work. In a recent test of the Pacific tsunami warning system, Thailand found that an attempt to alert people by sending text-messages to their mobile phones crashed the telephone system.

"The new systems need to be tested in real situations," UNESCO director-general Koïchiro Matsuura told a meeting last week in Paris of UNESCO's Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission. "New communication tools are vulnerable to saturation when they are most needed. New siren systems may be heard on one side of a bay but not on the other."

Educated move

Even a timely and 100% accurate and precise warning will not provide any protection if people do not know how to respond to the emergency, Matsuura said.

Efficient warning systems, as exist in Hawaii, for example, also require sufficient and well-signposted escape routes and a high level of preparedness among people at risk. Some people have been known to head to the beach to watch the spectacle when an alert is issued.

"Building national preparedness is the most difficult part of establishing early warning systems," Matsuura said.

An intergovernmental coordination group will discuss this and other remaining problems for the Indian Ocean system at a meeting in Bali from 31 July to 2 August.

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