UN-backed Indian Ocean tsunami early warning system begins to take shape

5 August 2005

A major element of a United Nations-backed tsunami early warning system for the Indian Ocean should be up and running by the end of the year as part of an international effort to prevent a recurrence of last December's catastrophe, when experts believe tens of thousands of people could have been saved had they been alerted in time.

A three-day meeting of the system's Intergovernmental Coordination Group (ICG), its first, which ended in Perth, Australia, today, heard that 23 stations of a real-time sea-level observation network covering the whole Indian Ocean basin are expected to be established before 31 December. Six such stations are already operational.

The network is one of three elements that experts have concluded are necessary for the Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning and Mitigation System (IOTWS), which formally came into existence at the 23rd Assembly of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization/Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (UNESCO/IOC) in Paris in June when the ICG was established to govern it.

The other two are an improved seismographic network and the deployment of deep-sea pressure sensors capable of detecting the tsunami signal as it travels over the deep ocean.

The entire system is expected to be fully operational by next July. Based on quake and tidal sensors, speedy communications, alarm networks from radio to cell phones, and disaster preparedness training in vulnerable regions, it will give people time to flee to higher ground before the waves strike.

In December, several hours passed between the quake that spawned the tsunami and the landfall of the waves that killed more than 200,000 people, wasting precious time in which scores of thousands could have fled out of their pathway. At present, such an early warning system exists only in the Pacific region.

At present, 25 countries gave established communication centres to receive interim advisory information, based only on seismological information, from the operational centres serving the Pacific in Hawaii and Tokyo. Since only a small minority of strong earthquakes generate tsunamis, this interim system is prone to a high rate of false alarms.

The ICG will hold its next meeting in Hyderabad, India, from 12 to 16 December.


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