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Australia Prepares World-First Tsunami Warning System

Australian scientists are putting the finishing touches on a highly advanced tsunami warning system in a remote desert region north of Perth. Researchers say the array of sensors is the first in the world able to make predictions on where and when tsunamis may strike.

The system being installed in the red dust of the Pilbara region in Western Australia will monitor earthquakes around the Indian Ocean. In particular, it will look for signs of underground ruptures along the Indonesian archipelago to the north.

Scientists say it is the first seismic array built specifically to predict both when tsunamis may occur, but also where they might strike. Information is transmitted in real time back to a tsunami-warning center in Melbourne and to Geoscience Australia in Canberra, the government’s official geological agency.

The seismic array is a network of interconnected seismographs that measure and record the force and duration of earthquakes. They are arranged in a geometric pattern to increase sensitivity to events underground.

Thirteen boreholes have been drilled over a 26-square kilometer zone. Monitoring equipment is then lowered into the ground. The system is powered by solar cells, with batteries for backup.

Professor Phil Cummins from Geoscience Australia says the system is unique. “An array is distinct from a station that has a single sensor in that it doesn't only see the incoming wave but it can also track the direction of incoming energy," he explains. "So as energy comes into the sensor it can sort of track the direction from which that energy is coming and that will let us sort of map out the rupture from some of these large earthquakes that might occur to our north or even elsewhere.”

A tsunami is a very large wave unleashed by an underwater earthquake or volcanic eruption. Earlier this year, parts of Japan were inundated by a tsunami, causing a catastrophic loss of life and damage to property, including nuclear reactors.

In 2004, a tsunami killed more than 230,000 people in 14 countries. Coastal areas were swamped by waves up to 30 meters high. Many of the victims died in the Indonesia province, Aceh.

After the disaster, the Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning System was established, which the Australian system will complement. It is expected to be operational by the end of the year.

The Indian Ocean system is designed to provide the sort of accurate information that the Hawaii-based Pacific Tsunami Warning Center has provided to countries in the Pacific basin since the 1960s.

Australia experiences on average about one earthquake each day -- most too small to be noticed without instrumentation. Although the country sits in the middle of the Indo-Australian tectonic plate, it is not prone to damaging earthquakes that many of its Asia-Pacific neighbors are.