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Sophisticated Network to Detect Tsunamis Expands


The massive earthquake and tsunami that hit the Indian Ocean 18 months ago has pushed governments, international organizations and scientists to expand a sophisticated network to detect tsunamis. VOA's Steve Herman in Honolulu, Hawaii, takes a look at the progress made so far.

"Do you know what to do during a tsunami warning? When you hear the sirens, listen to the radio for civil defense announcements and instructions."

In Hawaii and along the United States West Coast, governments have long educated the public about tsunamis through public service announcements like this.

But as the world found out when a tsunami struck all around the Indian Ocean in December 2004, local officials can only warn the public if they know that trouble from the sea is on the way.

Geophysicist Gerard Fryer at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, on Hawaii's island of Oahu, says even those with access to the data that day had no idea what was about to happen when a massive earthquake struck off the coast of Indonesia's Sumatra island.

"The poor guys here, they knew where the earthquake had started, but they didn't know where it went…So Thailand gets hit on one side and India and Sri Lanka gets hit on the other side, and no seismologist in the world had any idea of what had happened until several hours later," Fryer said.

By the time the waves had reached across the ocean to Eastern Africa, more than 200,000 people were dead or missing.

Even if the scientists had had full knowledge of what was happening, there was no quick way to warn the nations in the waves' path. Most Indian Ocean countries are not part of the international tsunami warning system that tracks hazards in the Pacific.

That is changing. Most nations in the region are now linking up to a warning system.

Six months from now, by the second anniversary of the tsunami, dozens of new seismic stations in the Indian Ocean, Asia, the Middle East and Africa are expected to be operational, joining the existing network in the Pacific. The warning system includes nearly 300 tidal gauges measuring sea levels around the world, with more stations being added all the time.

The upgrades will help scientists more accurately predict where a tsunami might hit. The chief scientist at the Pacific Disaster Center on the island of Maui, Stanley Goosby, points to upgraded devices off the coast of Alaska that are already making tsunami forecasts more accurate.

"We have several deep-water buoys located up in the Aleutian islands and that actually helps to bring down the false alarm rate, because you can't just use seismic information by itself to determine whether or not a tsunami has been generated," he said. "But one of the problems we have is in a lot of these areas, we don't have the observational systems."

The biggest data hole is the Indian Ocean. To help rectify that, some $30 million has been pledged by governments and international organizations to place deep-water buoys in that body of water, to augment those already in place in the Pacific.

Even where there are adequate observation systems, governments may not always be willing to share critical information widely and quickly.

Out of security concerns, India has been reluctant to disseminate some real-time data, including sea level information.

Geophysicist Gerard Fryer, at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, laments that India did not share its information from a tide gauge at Port Blair in the Andaman Islands after the Sumatra quake struck.

"That instrument was sending data in real time to mainland India. If that information had been shared, that whole sequence of things would have played out very, very differently, because we would have known," he said. "Obviously India suffered tremendously, so I am sure that they are going to change their ways."

Even when scientists have all the information in time to get the word out, other challenges remain. During tsunami warning drills and actual alerts in the Pacific this year, there were some breakdowns in the communications system.

To assess the shortfalls in the system, 16 Indian Ocean countries took part in a survey.

Brian Yanagi manages the Honolulu-based International Tsunami Information Center, one of the organizations carrying out the assessment.

"They really found out things about their country that they didn't know - their weaknesses to connect the dots, to make sure everything has to be working together on the same page," he said. "There's a lot of work that needs to be done, and the United Nations organizations are helping right now, as we speak."

One of the countries given the highest score in the survey is Thailand.

Thailand has combined the traditional alert system - an outdoor siren - with a new high-technology twist: sending SMS notifications to cell phones.

Some experts worry that as the shock of the 2004 disaster begins to subside, funds for expanding the warning system will start to dry up. Supporters of the system point out that although massive earthquakes and tsunamis may be infrequent events, the number of people who can be affected by them is growing. The United Nations estimates that by the year 2025, three quarters of the world's population will be living in close proximity to coastal areas.

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