Education Is Key to Tsunami Safety, Experts Say

January 24 2005

In the wake of December's deadly tsunami governments are scrambling to set up early warning systems worldwide—but experts caution that technology alone may not be enough to avert another disaster.

The Bush administration has pledged to quadruple the U.S. tsunami warning system in the Pacific Ocean and extend it to the Atlantic, Caribbean, and Gulf of Mexico coasts. The 37.5 million-U.S. dollar upgrade, scheduled for completion in mid-2007, would protect virtually all U.S. coastlines.

"The bottom line cost is not very much compared to what it will do," said Ellen Prager, president of consulting firm Earth2Ocean, Inc. and author of Furious Earth: The Science and Nature of Earthquakes, Volcanoes and Tsunamis. "The Caribbean has a history of tsunamis in the past, and the Puerto Rican trench means that there is seismic activity in the area. The expense is more than worth the cost if we do it right."

Meanwhile, at the UN-sponsored World Conference on Disaster Reduction, which concluded Saturday, officials pledged to coordinate a global tsunami warning system and have it operational within 18 months.

"Following the Indian Ocean disaster we had the most immediate and effective response ever from the humanitarian community to a major disaster, but it should never have happened," UN Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs Jan Egeland told attendees and media assembled in Kobe, Japan.

Laura Kong is the director of the UNESCO/Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission International Tsunami Information Centre. UNESCO is taking the lead in coordinating the international tsunami warning system.

"We must make sure that everyone understands that the system is not just seismic data and water levels but making sure that a warning gets out to government agencies and that those agencies already have a tsunami response plan," Kong said. "That's probably the hardest part. Some nations don't have the communications structure down to the local village level."

Pacific Warning System

The Pacific tsunami warning system was established by 26 Pacific Rim countries and is operated by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Ewa Beach, Hawaii. The system uses seismic data from U.S. Geological Survey/National Science Foundation monitoring stations around the world to determine when quakes have occurred that could trigger a tsunami.

The Pacific system uses coastal tide gauges and what are known as Deep-ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunamis (DART) sensors and buoys to detect oceanic changes.

Sensors on the seafloor detect changes in water pressure and send the data to buoys anchored alongside. The buoys relay the information via satellite to tsunami warning centers.

The sensitive system can detect pressure changes or sea-level rise of less than half an inch (one centimeter).

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