Global Tsunami Warning System Needed, Governments Agree

WASHINGTON, DC, January 17, 2005 (ENS) - Three of the six U.S. buoys in the Pacific Ocean that detect tsumanis have been broken for months and were not functioning when the Indian Ocean tsunami struck on December 26, 2004, a spokesman for the National Weather Service has admitted. Greg Romano, spokesman for the National Weather Service, said that six buoys placed throughout the Pacific are supposed to detect tsunamis, but the two near Alaska have been broken for 14 months.

The third buoy, off the Washington coast, broke in November and is being repaired. Repair of the two more northerly buoys will have to wait until rough weather conditions subside.

The Bush administration promised Friday to build a new $37.5 million tsunami detection system that covers the whole Pacific basin as well as the Caribbean and part of the Atlantic Ocean.


NOAA Administrator retired Navy Vice Admiral Dr. Conrad Lautenbacher is under secretary of Commerce for oceans and atmosphere. His doctoral thesis was on tsunamis. (Photo courtesy NOAA)
Over the next two years, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) will deploy 32 new advanced technology Deep-ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunami (DART) buoys for a fully operational tsunami warning system by mid-2007, NOAA Administrator Conrad Lautenbacher told reporters at the National Press Club.

Tsunamis are a series of very long waves generated by any rapid, large-scale disturbance of the sea. Most are generated by sea floor displacements from large undersea earthquakes.

DART systems detect them by means of an anchored seafloor bottom pressure recorder and a companion moored surface buoy for real-time communications. An acoustic link transmits data from the pressure recorder on the seafloor to the surface buoy. The data are then relayed via a GOES satellite link to ground stations, which send the signals to NOAA's Tsunami Warning Centers, the National Data Buoy Center, and the Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory.

The 32 new buoys will be placed around the Pacific basin from offshore Chile, up the west coast of North America, across the North Pacific and down its eastern edge as far south as New Zealand. Several buoys will be deployed in the Atlantic and the Caribbean, where there is also a danger of a severe earthquake that might generate a tsunami.

John H. Marburger III, science advisor to the President and director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy said, "This plan will enable enhanced monitoring, detection, warning and communications that will protect lives and property in the U.S. and a significant part of the world.

In addition, the U.S. Geological Survey will enhance its seismic monitoring and information delivery from the Global Seismic Network, a partnership with the National Science Foundation.

The new system will provide the United States with nearly 100 percent detection capability for a U.S. coastal tsunami, allowing response within minutes. The new system will also expand monitoring capabilities throughout the entire Pacific and Caribbean basins, providing tsunami warning for regions bordering half of the world's oceans.


A DART buoy floats in the Pacific Ocean. (Photo courtesy NOAA)
The Caribbean Disaster Emergency Response Agency (CDERA) is having talks with a number of partners including the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre, and universities across the Caribbean on the establishment of a tsunami early warning system for the Caribbean.

A Caribbean Tsunami Warning System was approved in 2002 following an earlier meeting hosted by the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).

The system, which would cover areas including the Caribbean Sea, the Gulf of Mexico and the Bahamas, is designed to alert countries and communities to a potentially damaging tsunami by ringing telephones and setting off alarm tones on personal computers.

Other components of the system include a network of sea level gauges, able to detect the emergence of big waves, a network of seismic stations and links to weather and meteorological stations in the region.

An aggressive public education and information program for local communities is also proposed including how to spot warning signs and develop appropriate evacuation procedures.

The system, which has been priced at just under $2.5 million, would take about three years to establish. But since being agreed there has been little progress towards its implementation.

"The events from the Indian Ocean underwater earthquake have again emphasised the vulnerability of the Small Island developing States and should further justify the call for their special consideration in support of sustainable development interventions. It also highlights the importance of addressing critical threats to the region other than the hurricane hazard,” said CDERA Coordinator Jeremy Collymore.

The Mauritius Declaration, which came at the end of the SIDS meeting held last week in Port Louis, Mauritius, states that "we, the representatives of the people of the world, … reiterate that the acknowledged vulnerability of small island developing states continues to be of major concern and that this vulnerability will grow unless urgent steps are taken.”

Governments specifically backed calls for an Indian Ocean and more extended early warning network.

"The tragic impacts of the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami and the recent hurricanes in the Caribbean and Pacific highlight the need to develop and strengthen effective disaster risk reduction, early warning systems, emergency relief, and rehabilitation and reconstruction capacities,” says the declaration.

The new U.S. system and the systems of 53 other countries will be part of the Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS), the international effort to develop a comprehensive, sustained and integrated Earth observation system.

The GEOSS blueprint for this new system is scheduled to be adopted at the Third Earth Observation Summit that will be held in Brussels February 16. Delegates are expected to sign off on a 10 year plan of action.

Such a system could cost up to $US10 billion, Lautenbacher estimated in an interview with ENS on January 11 at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii.


Joseph Urusemal is President Federated States of Micronesia which was shaken by a 6.6 magnitude earthquake on Sunday. Here he is seen addressing delegates at the conference of Small Island Developing States last weekin Mauritius. (Photo courtesy Earth Negotiations Bulletin)
Even before the Brussels summit, countries have been clamouring for a reliable tsunami early warning system. "The need for early warning was one of the key outcomes of the Small Island Developing States (SIDS) conference which closed on Friday in Mauritius," said UNEP's Executive Director Klaus Toepfer."The United Nations, governments and civil society are as one on this issue."

"The disaster reduction conference, taking place between 18 and 22 January in Kobe, must now take this forward and put real flesh on these plans including the sums of money needed and the roles of the different actors involved," Toepfer said.

Toepfer said, "We must ensure that the proposed Indian Ocean early warning system does not, like the Caribbean one, simply lie on the shelf gathering dust. We must, as a tribute to those 150,000 people who died as a result of the devastating tsunami of December 26, 2004, translate fine words into deeds to ensure that vulnerability in the Indian Ocean is reduced and that early warning systems elsewhere are put in place. These need to cover not only tsunamis but other catastrophes including hurricanes and cyclones, fires, chemical accidents and oil spills.”