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Tsunami early warning system moves into new phase

20 June - Tomorrow begins a meeting at which UNESCO's Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) will be formalizing the management structure for the tsunami early warning system for the Indian Ocean. The system is due to be fully operational by mid-2006. (More)

The meeting is taking place at UNESCO Headquarters from 21 to 30 June and is the IOC's 23rd Assembly. This latest rendez-vous follows on from two earlier co-ordination meetings for the tsunami early warning system, the first from 3 to 8 March at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris and the second in Mauritius from 14 to 16 April. At the former, it was decided to base the system on a co-ordinated network of national systems, with each Member State being responsible for issuing warnings within its own boundaries and each national system operating within a regional framework. The meeting recommended that an intergovernmental coordination group be set up, with the IOC providing the secretariat. The installation of six new sea-level gauges in India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand was also decided in March, together with the upgrading of 15 others placed throughout the Indian Ocean basin. The installation of deep-sea ocean bottom pressure sensors is also in the planning.

In Mauritius a month later, countries re-affirmed their commitment to establishing the tsunami early warning system for the Indian Ocean in the short term and to working towards a global multi-hazards warning system in the longer term. Countries around the Indian Ocean were invited to assess their requirements for the tsunami early warning system as a first step towards national strategic plans.

Eighteen countries have since requested assistance from the IOC for these assessments. Consequently, joint expert teams from the IOC, WMO and UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction will be touring the region between the end of May and August to provide assistance. The assessments will be used to finalize plans for both the national and regional systems and should also facilitate the co-ordination of donors' assistance for the different components, from technical requirements and instrumentation to communication channels and public education programmes.

Donor nations attending the Mauritius meeting, including Belgium, Finland and Norway, pledged some $5 million over and above earlier contributions for specific activities linked to the tsunami system. Several others, including Australia, France, Italy, Japan, Germany and the USA, along with the European Commission, also reiterated their willingness to provide more financial aid as the plans for the system became more clearly defined.

Many detailed studies are being made to assess the size of the 26 December earthquake, which is now thought to have killed 217 000 people. Assessments vary from a magnitude of 9.0 to 9.3 and it may be months before consensus is reached. One problem stems from the fact that the December earthquake was measured using equipment - modern seismometers and the broadband data they produce - that did not exist 40 years ago.

On 31 March, scientists writing in Nature, for example, requalified the December earthquake to 9.3, making it second only to the 1960 Chilean earthquake in recorded magnitude. Sidao Ni from the Science and Technology University of China and Hiroo Kanamori and Don Helberger from the California Institute of Technology in the USA asserted in Nature that the December earthquake had been so massive as to cause the entire rupture zone along a 1200 km-fault to slip, thereby releasing the strain accumulated from the subduction of the India plate beneath the Burma plate. They stated that 'there is no immediate danger of a similar tsunami being generated on this part of the plate boundary'.

Their analysis would seem to be borne out by the fact that the 28 March earthquake off the coast of Sumatra, which occurred along the same fault as in December, did not generate a tsunami, despite being of a magnitude of 8.7. The island of Nias bore the brunt of the aftershock, the biggest since the December earthquake, with at least 300 casualties and as many houses destroyed. Extensive damage was also reported on the neighbouring island of Simeulue. The earthquake was felt in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and, Thailand, as far north as Bangkok.









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