Tsunami Warning System Not Yet in Place

A year and a half after the catastrophic tsunami in the Indian Ocean killed 270,000 people, there is still no tsunami warning system for the region. Scientists say political disputes, coupled with a lack of scientific expertise and money in the region, have hampered efforts. But wealthy nations, while pledging money, haven't done much to put instruments into the ocean to detect tsunamis. Meanwhile, hundreds died in Java this month after another tsunami hit the island without warning.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Tsunami experts from around the world meet next week in Indonesia to work on a warning system for the Indian Ocean. Earthquakes and tsunamis have hit the region a number of times since 2004. That's when a huge tsunami killed 270,000 people. Just last week, along the southern coast of Java, a tsunami killed 600 people. There was no official alarm.

As NPR's Christopher Joyce reports, scientists say efforts to create a warning system have been very difficult.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE reporting:

So far the Indian Ocean warning system is mostly a plan. Scientists have designed a network of buoys and telecommunication links to spread warnings, but most of the hardware has not yet been installed. Stuart Sipkin is a scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey who is working on the project.

Dr. STUART SIPKIN (U.S. Geological Survey): Each country is doing the job and we are helping them when asked, but we're not going in and telling them what to do. It just doesn't work that way.

JOYCE: Then there's the question of who will run the operation. Several Indian Ocean countries now have equipment to detect earthquakes and nearby tsunamis, but scientists say the region needs a central command post.

Dr. SIPKIN: And that's where politics is coming into play, because I think everybody wants to host the regional center and, as a result, there is a great amount of difficulty in determining where that's going to be, how that's going to work.

JOYCE: Part of the difficulty, says Project Scientist Curt Barrett of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is trust.

Mr. CURT BARRETT (U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration): The problem's going to be if you have too many regional centers issuing too many regional bulletins, and if three of them say there is a tsunami coming and three say there isn't, what do you do if you're a country in between them? Will a country put its human life at stake for another country to warn it?

JOYCE: There are other complications. India wants tight control of its seismic data, the records of vibrations in the earth, and some countries don't have extra money for what they view as relatively rare events. And there's been delay in the U.S., as well.

The Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration builds the Cadillac of tsunami detection. It's called a DART buoy. A sensor sits at the bottom of the ocean, far from land, and detects the pressure change created by a passing tsunami. It relays that information to technicians on shore who sound the alarm. It's the best way to detect tsunamis long before they reach land.

Last year, Indian Ocean countries asked the U.S. if they could buy DART buoys. NOAA said sorry. Their small stock was already spoken for. By Congressional mandate, they had to be placed along U.S. and Caribbean coastlines. Curt Barrett said NOAA agreed instead to publish the engineering plans for the buoys.

Mr. BARRETT: There's limits in funds and there's limits in time of our projects. So we felt like our biggest contribution could be to share our technology, which we have. I mean, there's a website out there and any country and any company can get on there and find out what's in the NOAA buoy and how does it work.

JOYCE: NOAA say their first responsibility is to protect U.S. citizens along their own coastlines, even though it's the Indian Ocean that's seen most of the recent earthquakes and tsunamis.

In the meantime, Germany has built two tsunami detectors for Indonesia. Neither was working last week, according to scientists at the project. NOAA will deliver one DART buoy to Indonesia in November and another next year. The due date for the whole warning system is September of next year. Barrett says he worries what happens after that.

Mr. BARRETT: Once you put the system together, how do you keep it going? There's a huge commitment of money required to keep these things going.

JOYCE: The U.N. agency in charge of all this is the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission. Commission head Patricio Bernal says last week's tsunami should quicken what project scientists say has been a frustrating process to wire-up the Indian Ocean. Even then, he says, that will be to no avail until they the warning out to the people in the last mile along the coastlines.

Dr. PATRICIO BERNAL (Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission): The warning from the center in each country to the areas and population at risk, that's the weak link of the chain and we need to put it first, absolute priority, now.

JOYCE: Before last week's tsunami, Indonesian scientists did detect the initial earthquake, but there was no way to alert people along the coast that a 6-foot wave would follow.

Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

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