UN-backed tsunami early warning system set to become operation in Indian Ocean

28 June 2006

Eighteen months after the Indian Ocean tsunami killed more than 200,000 people in a dozen countries, a United Nations-backed early warning system, which experts say could have saved scores of thousands of lives had it existed at the time, is on schedule to become operational for the entire region by the end of July.

“This initial system will be capable of … improved and faster detection of strong, tsunamogenic earthquakes, increased precision in the location of the epi- and hypocentres of earthquakes; [and] confirmation of the presence of a tsunami wave in the ocean after a strong earthquake,” UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura said.

But he told the Executive Council of UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (UNESCO-IOC), which is coordinating creation of the system, that major challenges still remained including reinforced international coordination and long-term investment for greater capacity building across the board.

UNESCO-IOC set up the Pacific Tsunami Warning System, currently the only fully operation one in the world, in the mid 1960s. The new system constitutes a vital part of a global UNESCO-IOC network, with separate components set to cover the North East Atlantic, Mediterranean and Adjoining Seas, and the Caribbean. Protection is also being reinforced in the South West Pacific and the South China Sea.

The systems are based on quake and tidal sensors, fast communications, alarm networks ranging from radio to cell phones and text-messaging, and disaster preparedness training to ensure timely evacuation of vulnerable coastal areas.

Had one operated in the Indian Ocean on 26 December, 2004, it would have given hundreds of thousands of people several hours between the time the quake spawned the tsunami off the Indonesian island of Sumatra and its landfall in places like Sri Lanka and Thailand to flee to higher ground.

Twenty-six out of a possible 28 national tsunami information centres, capable of receiving and distributing tsunami advisories around the clock, have been set up in Indian Ocean countries. The seismographic network has been improved, with 25 new stations being deployed and linked in real-time to analysis centres.

There are also three Deep-ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunamis (DART) sensors. The Commission for the Nuclear-Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) is also contributing data from seismographic stations.

At present, information bulletins are issued from Japan and Hawaii, pending a final decision on the location of regional centres in the Indian Ocean. This will be facilitated when important additional contribution including instruments such as deep-sea pressure sensors and satellites become available in late 2007 and 2008.

“We can be justly proud of having done all this and much more,” Mr Matsuura said. “However, this successful work is far from being finished. The new systems need to be tested in real situations. During this last year, nature has given us ample opportunities to detect possible weak points.

“New communication tools – like small messaging services (SMS) – are vulnerable to saturation when they are most needed. New siren systems are heard on one side of a bay but not on the other. New seismographic networks cannot depend exclusively on the automatic determination of epicentres,” he added. “In sum, greater capacity-building is needed across the board.”


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