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Tsunami Warning Systems Proposed for Indian Ocean Region

It's been two weeks since a major earthquake in the Indian Ocean triggered tsunamis that devastated parts of coastal Indonesia, Thailand, and Sri Lanka and caused damage as far away as the Horn of Africa. As cleanup and relief operations continue in the affected areas, VOA's Art Chimes examines what might be done to mitigate the effects of future tsunamis.

The Pacific rim has a well-developed tsunami warning system, including undersea sensors to detect the huge waves, and public awareness campaigns so people know how to respond. There is no such system in the Indian Ocean region, even though destructive tsunamis have occurred there before the December 26 event.

Dr. Frank Gonzalez of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says the absence of a warning system in the region can be attributed to the fact that tsunamis are just one of many threats facing a region with limited resources. "It's primarily a resource and priorities issue. I think we have to understand that in many parts of the world, such as the Indian Ocean, tsunamis are one of perhaps a dozen or so natural hazards, and many of them occur more frequently than a tsunami," he says.

Most tsunamis are caused by undersea earthquakes, and Professor Jack Harrald of George Washington University says a system is in place to detect earthquakes. But that is only the start of the tsunami warning system. "There is the technology around the Indian Ocean basin to detect the earthquake. The earthquake was detected, the tsunami was not. Tsunami detection takes a set of buoys and radio transmitters off of satellites. But that technology, knowing that the hazard exists, knowing that the event occurred, in and of itself doesn't create the warning system to warn the people. And that's where, even if the technology is put in, that's only part of the solution," he says.

Also key to the system are undersea maps that help scientists predict how a tsunami will behave. Using sophisticated computer models, they can determine what areas are most at risk. Russian-born Elana Suleiman creates tsunami models at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, starting with known undersea earthquake zones. "There are very specific places where we can expect them to come from. And we create a hypothetical tsunami scenario for this community, and then we calculate the extent of flooding," she says.

Predicting how the tsunami will behave as it approaches land requires accurate maps of the ocean floor in coastal areas. Elena Suleimani has very detailed maps of the Alaska coastal areas she studies, where data is available with five-meter resolution. "And this is a very, very good dataset, but of course for Indian Ocean, the only one that we have right now is about maybe four kilometers. So for one four-by-four kilometer square, we have just one datapoint," she says.

But high-tech sensors are only part of the solution. Even experts who monitor these sophisticated networks stress the importance of educating people who might be affected: What to do in case a tsunami is heading your way, how to recognize the danger signs. Timothy Beach, who heads the Center for the Environment at Georgetown University, relates a story of 10-year-old Tilly Smith, whose quick-thinking showed the value of such lessons. "Another classic example of this was a little girl [from] England, who told her family vacationing on the beach at Phuket in Thailand that she'd 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," he says.

Knowing the signs of an impending tsunami are especially important for those closest to the earthquake's epicenter, where a tsunami wave could hit before any technical system could sound the alarm. And, according to Walter Dudley, who heads the Marine Center at the University of Hawaii in Hilo, unlike some other natural disasters, tsunamis can come along without a severe weather warning. "The areas that are within half an hour or an hour away may never have a chance for adequate warning. But if people along the coast recognize these initial signs from nature, they might have a chance to save their lives," he says.

As the population of vulnerable coastal areas continues to rise, tsunami warning systems will have to be expanded beyond the Pacific if lives are to be saved. U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman Thursday proposed legislation to fund a worldwide warning system, beginning with $30 million, and $7.5 million a year for ongoing operations. "Measured against 150,000 dead from the South Asia tsunami and billions of dollars in damages, this modest investment is obviously well worth it," he said.

The proposed warning system would include ocean sensors in the Atlantic and Caribbean areas, as well as the Indian Ocean.

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