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16 August 2005

Nations Move Ahead in Developing Tsunami Warning System

Meeting establishes Indian Ocean system requirements, working groups

By Cheryl Pellerin
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington – Attendees at the first meeting of the UNESCO Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission’s (IOC) group on the Indian Ocean tsunami early warning system took critical steps August 3-5 in Perth, Australia, to establish a technical framework for the developing system.

About 150 representatives from most of the 27 Indian Ocean countries adopted technical standards for tsunami-forecast modeling and methods for measuring earthquakes and tsunamis. They also formed scientific working groups to address a range of issues.

Officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) participated as observers for the United States and as scientific and technical advisers.

The group, called the Indian Ocean Intergovernmental Coordination Group (IO-ICG), was created in June as a subsidiary body of the IOC Assembly to guide and oversee the creation of an early warning system to protect Indian Ocean nations against tsunamis and other hazards. (See related article.)

“While there is still much to be done ... between now and the next meeting in Hyderabad, India, in December,” said David McKinnie, coordinator of the NOAA Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning System (IOTWS) Program, “the framework is there for countries like Australia, India, the United States and others to make significant progress on technical issues related to the tsunami warning system.

On December 26, 2004, a 9.3-magnitude earthquake struck the Indian Ocean region. It generated a massively destructive tsunami that killed more than 240,000 people and left millions homeless.

“There’s a real sense of urgency among the member states,” he added, “to be prepared to describe significant progress to their publics by December 26, 2005.”

WORKING GROUPS

The meeting focused on scientific and technical issues, and participants divided into working groups focused on major elements of an effective warning system – hazard-detection capabilities, risk assessments, warning dissemination methods and public education strategies.

Working group topics included the following:

• Seismic measurements, data collection and exchange.

• Tsunami hazard identification and characterization, including tsunami forecast modeling, prediction and scenario development.

• Establishment of interoperable regional warning centers.

• Sea-level data collection and exchange and deep-sea tsunami detection instruments, including NOAA’s deep ocean assessment and reporting of tsunami (DART) buoys.

Detecting tsunamis and other hazards requires a data-collection system that includes seismometers, communications systems, tide gauges (also called sea-level stations), rain gauges, automated weather systems and DART moored buoys.

DART buoys, developed by NOAA's Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle, Washington, are critical for the early detection and real-time reporting of tsunamis in the open ocean. Such “teletsunamis” occur far away from a country and cross open water, as did the December 2004 tsunami.

Today, NOAA has six DART buoys in the Pacific Ocean, where tsunamis most often occur, but the agency plans to make DART technology available to countries that want it. McKinnie said the IO-ICG in Perth formed a subgroup called the DART operators group.

“The group will be chaired by Australia and membership is restricted to countries that operate or plan to operate DART or DART-like systems,” McKinnie said. Members include Australia, Indonesia, India, Malaysia, Thailand, Germany and the United States.

Germany plans to invest $50 million in tsunami detection, preparedness and mitigation assistance in Indonesia, using its own DART-like systems, which are in development, McKinnie said.

The DART operators group could eventually become the global coordinating group for DART technology, McKinnie said, handling everything from setting standards for tsunami detection technology and sharing research and development to producing deployment plans and even coordinating the production of tsunami-detection technology outside the United States.

“The United States and Australia agreed to work together in the context of the IO-ICG,” McKinnie added, “to transfer DART technology to the Indian Ocean.”

U.S. CONTRIBUTION

During the meeting, Eddie Bernard, head of the U.S. delegation and director of the NOAA Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory, presented a preliminary design for Indian Ocean DART buoy placement based on a study of tsunamis in the region from 1700 to the present.

“If you look at the historical information, you’ll see there are two major sources where tsunamis can be generated,” Bernard said. “One is along the long subduction zone that extends from Bangladesh down to New Guinea, and then one hot spot at the northern tip of the Arabian Sea.”

The initial design uses 15 DART buoys and gives people on shore an hour of warning time in the event of a tsunami.

“At the discussions in Perth,” Bernard said, “the chairman of the group, Harsh Gupta, mentioned that he thought a second ring of buoys would be appropriate to give us another level of protection and another level of updating our forecast.”

The second ring brings the number of buoys to 28, Bernard said, “so somewhere between those two numbers is what will probably eventually exist.”

DART buoys are just one element of an early warning system, Bernard added, but DART buoy placements are a big concern to the Indian Ocean nations.

“The earthquake information is pretty much in place,” he said. “On December 26, within 10 minutes we knew where the earthquake was and how big it was. What we didn’t know was how big a tsunami it produced. This DART network would fill that gap.”

HAZARD MITIGATION

The hazard-mitigation working group was also an important part of the IO-ICG meeting, McKinnie said.

“All the warnings in the world are useless if your population’s not prepared,” he added, “if you haven’t developed an in-country communication systems and disaster management infrastructure and communities don’t know what to do when they get the warning.”

The group will develop best practices for disseminating and communicating warning messages, knowledge and preparedness to act, and public outreach. Group members will develop computer models for hazard assessment and vulnerability analysis, and determine actions that are needed to make communities tsunami-resilient.

“Promoting tsunami resiliency is a very important part of the U.S. government program and the NOAA program,” McKinney said. “You can’t avoid a tsunami, you can’t direct it, you can’t really do much except be ready for it.”

Each of the Indian Ocean’s diverse communities – resorts, large municipalities, and fishing villages or remote rural areas – can do things to make themselves resilient.

“Using the NOAA TsunamiReady program as a model,” McKinnie said, “we want to design a tsunami resilient community program for the Indian Ocean that recognizes those three distinct categories of community and tailors programs for each.”

The TsunamiReady program is designed to educate local emergency management officials and their constituents and promote a well-designed tsunami emergency response plan for each community.

NEXT STEPS

According to an IOC report on the Perth meeting, six real-time sea-level stations are operational in the Indian Ocean region and 23 will be operational before December 31. Sea-level stations, also known as tide gauges, are instruments that measure changes in sea level caused by tides.

Experiments will be conducted in the coming months to test communication links for transmitting seismic information in real time to Indian Ocean countries. The Indian Ocean tsunami warning and mitigation system architecture is based on establishing national tsunami centers that can issue warnings in each participating country.

So far, 25 countries have established such centers to receive interim advisories based only on seismological information from the NOAA Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii and the Japanese Meteorological Agency in Tokyo.

Because only a few strong earthquakes generate tsunamis, the interim system is prone to a high rate of false alarms.

The next IO-ICG meeting will be held December 14-16 in Hyderabad, India.

The meeting will focus on developing a capacity-building plan for the Indian Ocean region, based on the results of national assessments undertaken jointly by the IOC, the World Meteorological Organization and the U.N. International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, with technical help from the Asian Disaster Reduction Center, the Japan Cabinet Office and the United States.

A workshop on modeling tsunami forecasts will be held December 12-13. During the workshop, Indian Ocean models will be tested against each other. The workshop is part of a rigorous three-part evaluation procedure adopted in Perth for Indian Ocean tsunami forecast models.

The first step is publication of the model results based on a historical event, Bernard said. The second step is intercomparison with other models, and the third step is, among models that compare well, making sure the model can run effectively and execute quickly.

“The [IO-] ICG is encouraging the development of models and providing a forum to test the models for accuracy and usefulness,” he added.

WARNINGS TODAY

”If there were a big earthquake [in the Indian Ocean region] today, I’m afraid we’d be in the same situation we were December 26,” Bernard said.

“We would know a big earthquake had occurred and we would deliver those data to all 27 nations that have meteorological offices, which will eventually become the national tsunami warning focal points,” he said. “But how much of it will go from that point down to the individual on the beach, I don’t know.”

An existing meteorological telecommunications network, called the Global Telecommunications System (GTS), will be used to relay tsunami warnings to the Indian Ocean region. It consists of an integrated network of circuits that interconnect meteorological telecommunication centers around the world.

The difference between now and December 26, 2004, Bernard added, “is that all those meteorological networks are now in place and there’s a direct link between the [NOAA Pacific Tsunami Warning Center] and the Indian Ocean nations. That is a major step forward.”

The Indian Ocean countries still expect to have some elements of an early warning system in place by the end of 2005; a completed system could probably be in place in three or four years.

For additional information about the Indian Ocean tsunami early warning system, see related article.