UN tsunami early warning systems extended to Mediterranean, Northeast Atlantic

23 November 2005

Spurred on by last December’s deadly Indian Ocean tsunami, a United Nations-backed meeting of experts from 23 Mediterranean and Northeast Atlantic countries has laid the foundations for a regional early warning system to mitigate disasters like the one which killed 85,000 people in Italy 100 years ago.

Although less frequent than in the Pacific and Indian Ocean, the Mediterranean and Northeast Atlantic region has a record of tsunamis associated with earthquakes such as the 1908 calamity in the Sicilian port of Messina and the 1755 quake and tsunami that destroyed Lisbon, killing thousands. There are also records of local events along the coasts from Norway to the Marmara and the Black Seas.

The meeting organized by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC), ending in Rome yesterday, was the first of the new system’s Intergovernmental Coordination Group (ICG), which will oversee its implementation and supervise its operations.

Participants identified key technical needs for the system and adopted an action plan for 2006-2007 focusing on enhancing capabilities for multiple risk assessment, improving warning efficiency based on seisomological, geophysical and sea-level information, and increasing mitigation through coastal planning and public awareness.

Early warning is vital for reducing the impact of tsunamis, and experts says scores of thousands of lives could have been saved had such a system functioned for the Indian Ocean last December, when 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 many could have fled to higher ground.

At present, such a system exists in full only in the Pacific, while elements of one for the Indian Ocean are in the process of being set up. It involves quake and tidal sensors, speedy communications, alarm networks from radio to cell phones, and disaster preparedness training in vulnerable regions.

The new ICG will implement trials for key components for the Mediterranean and Northeast Atlantic with the aim of having an initial operational system in place by December 2007, as part of a global tsunami warning and mitigation system being coordinated by UNESCO-IOC. Beyond those in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, planning is underway for one in the Caribbean.

 

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