A Weblog monitoring coverage of environmental issues and science in the UK media. By Professor Emeritus Philip Stott. The aim is to assess whether a subject is being fairly covered by press, radio, and television. Above all, the Weblog will focus on science, but not just on poor science. It will also bring to public notice good science that is being ignored because it may be politically inconvenient.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

The essential scientific and political links in any Tsunami Early Warning System.....

It is good news that world leaders have now pledged themselves to help to set up a Tsunami Early Warning System for the Indian Ocean Region like that in the Pacific Ocean, which has been up-and-running since 1965: 'Summit approves tsunami warning' (BBC World News, January 6): "World leaders have pledged to set up an Indian Ocean early warning system which could save lives in the event of a repeat of December's tsunami."

Here is a brief analysis of what is required, highlighting the links in the chain that may prove difficult to achieve. The science is the easy bit - the political will and local planning within each state are what will really count. Potential weak links in the chain are indicated by italic bold:

(a) A system of pressure sensors on the ocean bed;

(b) These send signals about the passing tsunami swell to surface buoys;

(c) These, in turn, send signals to satellites which feed the information into computers in each country that can model dynamically the progress of the wave - its strength, speed, and direction;

(d) Serious potential weak link: there must be 24-hour coverage of the computer record and the information must be in the hands of officials/politicians with enough political authority to be able to issue an immediate warning to the relevant coastal areas. This is alleged to have been a problem in Thailand with the December tsunami. Warnings must take precedence over the commercial interests of any tourist industry;

(e) Serious potential weak link: all countries surrounding the Indian Ocean must participate if the system is going to work effectively. In this respect, secretive states like Burma (Myanmar) and politically-difficult areas like the north of Sri Lanka and Aceh province in Sumatra thus pose limitations;

(f) Potential weak link: each country must have a simple and straightforward system of communicating the warning as quickly as possible to all coastal authorities and to hotels. Unfortunately, many areas in the Indian Ocean are remote (e.g. the Andaman Islands), or heavily rural and scattered (India,) or very poor. They often lack the necessary local infrastructure;

(g) Potential weak link: local authorities and hotels must have tried-and-tested emergency plans for speedy evacuation of people from the coast to higher ground. Tsunami drills will be vital, just like fire drills;

(h) Potential weak link: local people and hotel managers will need education in what to do. They will also need education about the characteristics of tsunami. For example, if they witness the violent retreat of the sea and the sudden exposure of coral and sea bed, they must move people away from the coast as swiftly as possible;

(i) Potential weak link: well-maintained tsunami warning signs, with clear comments on immediate action, must be posted all round the coasts of the Indian Ocean;

(j) Serious potential weak link: the system must be rigorously maintained even after years of no tsunami damage.

Philip, off to broadcast.

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