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Progress Reported on Tsunami Warning System

Scientists expect more deadly earthquakes and tsunamis in the Indian Ocean. Countries in the region are making progress towards a regional warning and alert center.

Tsunamis cannot be prevented, but ample warning can save lives. Unfortunately, that was not the case for 230,000 people who were swept away in the 2004 Indian Ocean wave. This catastrophe prompted the U.N. Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission to establish a tsunami warning system in this region.

Their goal is to build a network of ocean sensors and to establish a regional alert center that sends timely warnings of approaching tsunamis to area nations.

A scientist with the commission, Ulrich Wolf, says so far, only some of the sensors are in place. In the absence of a regional command center, they relay signals about water level, ground movements, and other data to existing centers in the Pacific Ocean, which send alerts back to governments in the region.

"We do have an interim system in place, which essentially has got 26 new tide gauges, about 30 new seismic stations in the Indian Ocean, which all deliver bare data, real time, to the Hawaii Pacific Tsunami Warning Center and the Japanese Tsunami Warning Center," he said. "They provide their alerts to within 10 to 20 minutes to the Indian Ocean region."

Although the system began operating at the end of June, several hundred Indonesians were killed by the Java tsunami in July. The detection system worked successfully, but the public did not receive the alerts in time.

Wolf says that relaying the warning from central governments to their people remains a major challenge.

"The technical side is quite easy to install because this is just technology we know," he explained. "Once the warning shows up in the national warning system in a country, the difficult part is for a country to set up an internal civil defense system to get the warnings to the endangered areas and to the last mile."

Warning systems are only one of the components in surviving tsunamis. Civil engineer Robert Dalrymple at Johns Hopkins University adds that evacuation systems are also needed.

"Parts of Thailand are very flat and so they need to be able to climb up into buildings," he said. "People need places of refuge when these waves come in to shore."

Ulrich Wolf says the other challenge is to coordinate data among the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission's member countries. Thailand, Malaysia, and India have their own warning centers, but cultural differences have prevented them from deciding on a regional warning center, which could shorten alert response to within minutes of the initial earthquake or other undersea ground movements that trigger tsunamis.

"The essential needs are, for example, real time data flow and data availability between all the countries so all nations should be able to see all data coming online, and is not really working actually," Wolf added.

Officials from the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission met this week in Bali, but could not agree on which nation would host the regional Indian Ocean tsunami monitoring center. Instead, they renewed commitment to improve communications within their own countries. An integrated system is at least three years away.

Indonesia has promised to install alert systems in vulnerable areas and to assign 75 seaports that would send signals of possible seismic events.