Monday, January 03, 2005

A Tsunami Early Warning System

The Globe and Mail reports today (hat tip to The Moderate Voice), that Indonesia plans to develop a tsunami early warning system.

“Indonesia and other neighbouring countries plan to set up an early warning to
prevent natural disasters, including earthquake and tsunamis,” President Susilo
Bambang Yudhoyono told reporters Monday. “This would be a kind of pre-emptive

Mr. Yudhoyono did not specify which countries would be involved, how
the impoverished country planned to finance the system or how it would

Regional leaders were expected to endorse establishing a tsunami early
warning system at the conference starting Thursday, organized by the 10-member
Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Experts say, however, that making such a system work will be an expensive and complex task.”

Such a system is certainly a sensible reaction to the recent disaster, but I can’t help but wonder about a couple of challenges about implementing one.

I recalled that this tsunami was initially reported as an extremely rare event in that part of the world, so I Googled around a bit to find out just how rare and came across this very nice page: Scientific Background on the Indian Ocean Earthquake and Tsunami

A couple of items there caught my attention. One was the fact that these early warning systems are a bit more complicated than simply sounding an alarm. From a 1985 report titled TSUNAMI: FORECASTING. PREPAREDNESS AND WARNING

“Government agencies should formulate land-use regulations for a given coastal
area with the tsunami risk potential in mind, particularly if such an area is
known to have sustained damage in the past. Tsunami hazard perception by the
people of a coastal area is necessary in mitigating loss of life and damage to
property. Hazard perception by the public is based on a technical understanding
of the phenomenon, at least at the basic level, and a behavioral response
stemming from that understanding and confidence of the public for the
authorities responsible for warning.”

Perhaps this is simply my ignorance speaking, but I am under the impression that large areas that were affected by this recent tsunami are not especially well-suited to implement such a system. These are not first-world countries we’re talking about. In a tremendously large portion of the affected countries, zoning of is virtually unknown. Far from great trust between the public and local authorities, such authorities are generally presumed to be corrupt and inefficient. Sri Lanka and Indonesia also have ongoing civil wars further complicating matters.

Then there is that fact that tsunamis are not terribly common events in the Indian ocean. Apparently only seven were recorded in the past two hundred years.

As this recent experience fades from memory, how vigilant are authorities and the public likely to remain about how to react to a tsunami warning, no matter how good a system is devised? And what about false warnings? Aren’t they inevitable considering the nature of such systems, and wouldn’t those tend to degrade alertness?

From that 1985 report again:

“Over warning, based on inadequate data on which to base the prediction, often
leads to false alarms and lack of compliance with warning and evacuation
attempts. Such false alarms result in a loss of faith in the capability of a
warning system and result in reluctance to take action in subsequent tsunami

My point here is not to suggest that nothing should be done. I would still consider the establishment of some sort of warning system in light of the recent disaster to be a necessity.

I suppose my point is that such a system is no “silver bullet.” Much of the comment I see around implementing an early warning system seems inclined to the view that it will make a disaster of this scale nearly impossible in the future. I would suggest that this overstates the likely benefit - perhaps overstates it by a lot. It gives the people of those nations better odds, but it's really difficult to state just how much better.

Another point is that no one is really at fault here for failing to have a warning system already in place. The likelihood of needing one seemed terribly remote; only seeming like a wise allocation of money from a rather poor section of the world in the aftermath of a huge disaster. And if a few decades go by with no more tsunami, and a few false warnings tossed in as well, it's entirely possible such a warning system will be abandoned.


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