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Assessing the Tsunami Warning System

Author: Rebecca Bloom
December 22, 2006

Introduction

The December 26, 2004 earthquake off the coast of Sumatra, Indonesia triggered a series of devastating tsunamis across the Indian Ocean that killed over two hundred thousand people and left tens of thousands missing. In the aftermath of the disaster, countries and aid organizations vowed to establish a warning system that would prevent coastal communities from experiencing a similar tragedy. However, in July 2006, a tsunami that killed at least six hundred people off the coast of Java, Indonesia provoked questions about what progress had been made. As the two-year anniversary of the 2004 tsunami nears, an interim system holds promise, but a permanent regional system is not yet in place and there are barriers that could take several years to overcome.

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What was the origin of the early warning system?

In the weeks following the 2004 tsunami, a conference was held on the challenges faced by small island states (BBC). The head of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Koichiro Matsuura, announced at the meeting that a $30 million warning system for the Indian Ocean could be in place by June 2006, with a global system to follow a year later. All twenty-seven countries bordering the Indian Ocean were involved, as well as representatives from UNESCO’s intergovernmental coordinating group, including Germany, Japan, the United States, and the Netherlands. This early proposal evolved into a $126 million interim plan, established by UNESCO and known as the Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning and Mitigation System (IOTWS). To date, twenty-three monitoring stations, or “tsunameters,” consisting of an underwater platform and a buoy on the ocean’s surface, have been erected across the Indian Ocean. They measure the strength of underwater quakes and assess the subsequent tsunami threat. That information is sent to the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center (PTWC) in Hawaii and the Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA), which then supply warnings to national monitoring centers.

What is the status of the effort?

While progress has been made in terms of the interim system, there has been less success in setting up a permanent system, which would build on the existing monitoring stations by adding more detection equipment and creating a communications infrastructure within the Indian Ocean countries. The United States is implementing a two-year, $16.6 million program known as DART-2 (Deep-ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunamis), to provide technical assistance to UNESCO’s IOTWS plan. The program is using an “end-to-end” approach, meaning that the system will address all stages of early warning, from initial hazard detection and warning to the final communication of the message to the coastal communities at risk. It will also address other coastal hazards such as cyclones, floods, and sea wells along with earthquakes and tsunamis. The system will support the twenty-seven Indian Ocean members, along with targeted technical support to the five countries most affected by the December 2004 tsunami—Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, Thailand, and the Maldives.

Louise Comfort, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh and an expert in emergency responses to earthquakes, believes the DART-2 system is too expensive (CNN) for many Indian Ocean members to implement and sustain. Comfort and her fellow researchers will submit a grant proposal to the National Science Foundation to fund tests for a less expensive network of ocean floor and mobile sensors to be installed off the coasts of the United States and Indonesia. The researchers hope these low-cost devices will complement existing deep-water tsunami-detection buoys by providing measurements and analysis of seismic movements more quickly and accurately than the buoys alone.

What are the problems delaying the process?
  • Money. While enormous funding was provided immediately following the tsunami for medical care and rehabilitation of habitats, long-term preventative relief has not attracted as much attention or generosity. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent (IFRC) says that governments, aid agencies, and humanitarian groups have to spend at least twice as much as current levels on disaster preparedness. Financing and supporting the permanent system in the long term is another problem for the Indian Ocean nations. Comfort says a “huge expense is the maintenance of these [tsunami-detection] buoys because they have to have a big oceangoing ship visit them every year [and] change the batteries. Nations like Indonesia and Thailand can’t afford it.” The buoys cost up to $250,000 each to install, and $50,000 per year to maintain. The estimated cost of deploying and maintaining the entire buoy system, which would ideally cover the Indian Ocean and thus entail more than the twenty-three buoys currently in existence, is not entirely clear, but it is believed to be in the billions of dollars.
  • Collaboration among countries. A challenge inherent in the tsunami warning system plan is getting all of the affected countries to work together. Eight of the twenty-seven countries involved want to set up their own regional tsunami alert centers, which experts say could cause delay and confusion. “If you have eight different pieces of information going to all twenty-seven countries and contrasting with one another, then nobody knows what to do,” Curt Barrett of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration told USA Today.
  • Education. Some of the efforts made thus far have not been focused as efficiently as they could be. The Indonesian Red Cross recently launched a radio network to transmit early warnings to communities in Aceh, the Indonesian province hardest hit by the tsunami with more than 170,000 killed or missing. But getting the hardware in place does not guarantee success; people in the affected areas must be educated on how to use the system, and in this case Aceh residents were not properly trained to know how to use it. There has “been a lot of focus on the technical aspects”, Johan Schaar, a Geneva-based special representative for the IFRC’s tsunami operation, tells Reuters. “If people are not reached by the warning and if they don't know what to do when the warning comes…then it will not be effective."

Other problems include a shortage of deep-sea buoys (there are only a handful of suppliers worldwide), and the pressing issue of time. With earthquakes that occur very close to the beach, even an ideal system could not disseminate the necessary information quickly enough.

Are there successful warning systems?

Yes, in both Japan and Hawaii. The Japan Meteorological Agency’s computerized Earthquake and Tsunami Observation System (ETOS) is a highly developed system that has been built up over many decades. ETOS monitors signals from 180 seismic stations across Japan and about eighty water-borne sensors around the clock. The JMA aims to issue tsunami alerts within three to five minutes after an earthquake occurs in or around Japan. When an earthquake triggered small tsunami waves in northern Japan on November 15, 2006, no one was injured and very little damage was sustained to the area. Anyone who was watching television at the time saw a tsunami warning flash on the screen almost instantly, causing thousands to evacuate to higher ground within minutes (Reuters). To make sure the alerts reach the Japanese people, the JMA has worked with the country’s media to develop an online system that superimposes alerts onto television screens as soon as they are issued. In some areas, televisions even turn on automatically in the case of an evacuation order.

Japan has offered to contribute its expertise in this area to the international effort of creating a warning system for the Indian Ocean, but its experience last summer highlights the challenges involved. Immediately following the July 2006 earthquake in Java, Japanese officials warned their Indonesian counterparts of a likely tsunami, but the information never reached the public. Osamu Kamigaichi, an official at the JMA who has visited Indonesia several times, says that instituting a similar system there would be a lengthy and difficult process given the lack of communications infrastructure and the wide variety of languages spoken throughout the large archipelago.

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, which issues tsunami warnings to Hawaii, countries in the Pacific Basin, and most other U.S. interests, is, like the JMA, a highly efficient and developed organization and is considered an excellent model for the permanent tsunami early-warning system.

What are the prospects for a permanent Indian Ocean warning system?

Progress has been incremental. The U.S.-funded DART-2 early warning assistance plan is now in operation. On November 28, 2006, a team of Thai and U.S. authorities from the NOAA set sail from Phuket Island to install a new buoy off the coast of Thailand. Steps are also being taken to tackle the myriad communication barriers. In November 2006, the US Forest Service conducted a series of advanced emergency response training courses for twenty-five senior government officials from Sri Lanka. This training is part of the Incident Command System program that Sri Lanka has adopted under its national strategic plan for emergency response.

Recently the Canadian, Spanish, and Australian Red Cross organizations partnered with the IFRC to expand and hone the Aceh radio network discussed above. Twenty-two more base stations will be installed in Aceh, and Indonesian Red Cross staff and volunteers are receiving training in the use of the radios and in the dissemination of pertinent information to their communities. This may be the most pressing issue in terms of early warning, and the one most in need of improvement. “Let’s not kid ourselves and think we solved the warning problem,” urges Laura Kong, head of the International Tsunami Information Center in Honolulu, which provides information services to improve tsunami preparedness for the Pacific Ocean nations. “We have to make sure that the information gets out to the last person, and that they know what to do. We’re not there yet” (TIME).

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