Indian Ocean's Tsunami Early Warning System Taking Shape

Lori Valigra
for National Geographic News
December 23, 2005

One year after the Indian Ocean tsunami killed an estimated 300,000 people, progress has been made on setting up basic early warning systems in the region.

A full-blown regional system, however, may be years away, despite predictions that another huge wave could strike at any time.

When the tsunami struck on December 26, 2004, the Indian Ocean had no early warning system to speak of—at least nothing like the Pacific Ocean's array of tide gauges, seismometers, deep ocean sensors, high-tech buoys, and communication systems.

The Pacific system's seismometers happened to detect the Indian Ocean earthquake that created the tsunami.

"We had seismic signals," Charles McCreery said. "But we had no sea-level data to detect or measure the tsunami and no system for disseminating a warning." McCreery is the director of the U.S. government's Pacific Tsunami Warning Center (PTWC) in Ewa Beach, Hawaii.

The PTWC, along with the Japan Meteorological Agency, coordinates the Pacific tsunami-warning system.

The PTWC and the Japanese agency get data instantly from a hundred coastal tide gauges, more than a hundred seismographs (which monitor ground movement), and 11 DART (Deep-ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunamis) buoys. The buoys relay water-pressure data from "tsunameters" on the seafloor to monitoring centers.

No such system of sea-level gauges or buoys existed in the Indian Ocean last December.

Interim Solution

Immediately after the tsunami, scientists, politicians, and other citizens from 26 Indian Ocean countries—including Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, and Australia—began to collaborate on an early warning system and procedures that could save lives.

Though the so-called Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning and Mitigation System will not be fully implemented for years, an interim system is in place.

The PTWC and Japan Meteorological Agency play a key role in the interim international warning system.

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