First Test of Pacific Tsunami Warning System a Success

By Cheryl Pellerin
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington - More than 30 nations participated in the first regionwide test of the Tsunami Warning System in the Pacific May 16-17, held to exercise each country's lines of communication, review tsunami response procedures and promote emergency preparedness.

Exercise Pacific Wave '06, sponsored by UNESCO's Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC), began at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Pacific Tsunami Warning Center (PTWC) in Ewa Beach, Hawaii - the operational center of the IOC Tsunami Warning System. (See related article.)

"We are in much better shape now, in terms of communications, than before," said PTWC geophysicist Victor Sardina, who participated in the exercise.

Participating nations "are now aware of their weaknesses, too," he added, "and that's the most important part of the test."

The simulation comprised two tsunami scenarios - one arising from a fictional 9.2-magnitude earthquake off the coast of Chile in the eastern Pacific, and one from a fictional 8.8-magnitude earthquake off the Philippines in the western Pacific.

This timing allowed countries to participate during reasonable work hours across the 13 time zones of the Pacific and South China seas.

It began with a mock tsunami bulletin issued from the PTWC on the morning of May 16. The PTWC in Hawaii is part of the NOAA National Weather Service. Until the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the PTWC served the Pacific Basin as a regional and long-distance tsunami warning center and as a local tsunami warning center for Hawaii.

Today, it is an interim warning center for the Indian Ocean - in cooperation with the Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA), which issues bulletins for hazard-related events in the Indian Ocean and the Caribbean, until systems are in place for those regions.

The mock bulletin - clearly indicating that it was a test and not an actual warning - was transmitted to designated contact points and national emergency authorities responsible for tsunami response in each country.

After the warning went out, PTWC staff called every participating country - and some that had not planned to participate but were willing to help when they were called - to make sure the messages had gotten through. Most countries did receive the warnings.

An important part of the test, Sardina said, was collecting current official contact information for every country, "so everything is up to date for when the real earthquake or the real tsunami is on its way. It was a big success from that point of view."

The IOC established the Tsunami Warning System more than 40 years ago to monitor seismological and tidal stations throughout the Pacific Basin, evaluate potentially tsunami-generating earthquakes and disseminate tsunami warning information. (See related articles.)

A team chaired by Australia coordinated the exercise and included representatives from NOAA's PTWC and West Coast/Alaska Tsunami Warning Center, the IOC Northwest Pacific Tsunami Advisory Center and the International Tsunami Information Center. Country representatives from Australia, Chile, France, Fiji, New Zealand, Nicaragua, the Russian Federation, Samoa and the United States were also on the team.

In the second stage of the exercise, government officials disseminated the message in each country to local emergency management and response authorities, simulating what would happen in a real situation.

Notifying authorities of at least one coastal community was set as a sufficient measure for testing the end-to-end process of an entire country for the first exercise. An end-to-end system is one whose disaster management technology is based on a global framework and links effectively through international, national and local networks to make sure that warnings are generated and that people along every threatened shore are notified and know how to avoid danger.

Exercise Pacific Wave '06 was the first drill in a series of regular exercises. A report evaluating the success of the exercise will be presented during the next IOC Executive Council meeting in late June.

Additional information about the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center is available at the NOAA Web site. More information about the U.S. government Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning System Program is available on a USAID Web site.