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Expert Details Value of Tsunami Warning System


Transcript of a VOA interview

MS. PEARSON:

My guest is Dr. Timothy Beach. He is Director of the Center for the Environment at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

Dr. Beach, some of the reports indicate that it would cost about $20 million to put a warning system, a tsunami warning system, in the Indian Ocean. Twenty million hardly seems like a lot of money when we're hearing about all the money that it's going to cost to rebuild the seven countries involved that were affected by the tsunami. What exactly is needed to be put in place?

PROFESSOR BEACH:

What we need is a system of buoys, both those that are on the ocean floor, pressure gauges, as well as those tethered at the ocean surface. And then we need a system of satellites as well. We already have in place a system of satellites, the GOES system, that the U.S. uses mainly for predicting weather from day to day, but it also allows for information on pressure in the ocean to be told to various warning organizations around the United States and around the coast of the United States, as well as the Pacific.

So the gauges themselves are on the order of hundreds of thousands of dollars. The GOES satellite system is a much more expensive one. But certainly we could build off the European system as well as off some of the other systems like our own GOES satellites. So the total amount wouldn't be the total start?up that it cost the United States and Europe for developing these kind of weather prediction satellite systems.

MS. PEARSON:

And would you say that these also need to be put in other areas throughout the world? For instance, the Caribbean Basin doesn't have any kind of warning system.

PROFESSOR BEACH:

Absolutely, especially the Atlantic as well. We know, for example, that on the Canary Islands there is a volcano that at a certain point in time ?? it may be a long time, it may not be so long ?? will slip off into the ocean and induce a tsunami, which will affect Europe, and particularly England in this case. In fact, I was just reading an editorial in The Guardian of London, which was talking about this very point. Which many geoscientists have talked about for many years.

MS. PEARSON:

Some experts have said that if the people in the countries that were affected by the tsunami had had even an hour to prepare for it, there would have been much less devastation in terms of loss of life.

PROFESSOR BEACH:

Well, absolutely. An hour is enough time to get most people away from the main areas that are affected by a tsunami. The tsunami in this case, of several meters high, pushed inland a good distance because a number of these areas have low relief near the sea. But it's usually enough time to pull people out of the way, especially in areas that have higher relief, that can move quickly up in elevation.

So I think that ?? I'm sorry, what's the rest of...

MS. PEARSON:

We were talking about the amount of warning time needed.

PROFESSOR BEACH:

The amount of warning time. An hour is not plenty, but it's more than you might have on smaller types of tsunamis. We know, for example, there are local tsunamis that do occur from landslides or from rock falls that may cause massive tsunamis in size and give only a few minutes, 10 to 15 minutes let's say, warning beforehand. In which case a warning system is very difficult. But these are very infrequent.

There is a classic example of a 500?meter?high tsunami in Alaska that devastated everything around it. Fortunately, the population was lower there. But for the most part, an hour is a good amount of time to move people away from beach areas.

Now, another aspect of this of course is to attempt to warn people around beach areas. And a classic example here is where we need more geographic and geoscience education. Another classic example of this was a little girl in England, who told her family, vacationing on the beach at Phuket in Thailand, that she had seen the ocean go out. And her geography teacher in England had told her that this is a prediction of a tsunami wave coming in. She told her parents. Her parents warned everybody on the beach. People pulled out, and nobody on that particular beach died.

So it underscores just the basic importance of geographic or geoscience education, which unfortunately we've cut over the last decades.

MS. PEARSON:

But people in especially the coastal areas need to have this very important information?

PROFESSOR BEACH:

They need to have the information. We need the education. But we also need the kind of warning systems along the coast.

Another example of this is many people have argued that, well, in place there aren't the warning systems in many undeveloped countries that could warn a lot of people. But we know, for example, in Bangladesh, there is a system of warning by bikes and whistles, to warn people of cyclones and the rise in water that occurs with that. Which has caused in the past the deaths of thousands and thousands of people.

So it could be very low?tech, in the case of bicycles and whistles, or it could be very high?tech, in the case of geographic information systems, with satellite imagery and with overlays of data that tell us where areas are likely to be inundated by a particular size tsunami. And then also tell us where the major evacuation routes are.

And so we can go very high?tech, which I think we should do, because the total amount of money spent on that still doesn't add up to the total amount of costs that came from this earthquake, both in human life but also in infrastructure and rebuilding.

MS. PEARSON:

But it can also be low?tech, like in Kenya, where there was one death, because...

PROFESSOR BEACH:

Where there was one death, right.

MS. PEARSON:

Because the police or the military mobilized and got people off the beaches.

PROFESSOR BEACH:

Any system that's appropriate for the country. It could be low?tech or high?tech in these cases. The U.S. system is a very high?tech one. But it also relies just on local people getting the word out around beach areas.

This is a classic example in this case where we have in the world a digital divide, as it's often called, between the developed countries that have a lot of computer technology and information, and undeveloped countries that have little of this. This so?called digital divide then divides us in many ways, access to information.

Now, this can work for us, where we don't have the digital divide, where people have access to information, from a warning system like this, but we could develop, again, the low?tech systems. Although it doesn't mean we shouldn't try to develop the high?tech systems for those undeveloped countries.

MS. PEARSON:

Thank you very much, Dr. Timothy Beach.

PROFESSOR BEACH:

Thanks.

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