United States Expands Tsunami Warning Capability

By Cheryl Pellerin
USINFO Staff Writer

Washington – Two years have passed since a massive 9.1-magnitude earthquake off the west coast of Sumatra triggered tsunami waves that inundated the shores of the Indian Ocean, killing nearly 230,000 people – people who had no warning of the approaching disaster.

Today, with help from experts in many countries, a warning system is beginning to take shape in the Indian Ocean, hazard-warning centers in the United States and Japan keep an interim watch for potential tsunamis there, officials in the region are establishing warning centers and communities are becoming better prepared to respond to coastal hazards.

In December, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) put seven new deep-ocean assessment and reporting of tsunami (DART) buoys in oceans – one in the Indian Ocean and six in the southwest Pacific Ocean.

“We have drastically improved our tsunami detection and warning capability since the Indian Ocean tsunami two years ago,” said NOAA Administrator Conrad Lautenbacher in a December 22 statement. “These buoys are the latest achievement in an ongoing effort to increase the tsunami program at home and abroad.”

On December 3, NOAA experts and Thai government officials sailed from the Cape Panwa pier at Phuket, Thailand, on the vessel MV SEAFDEC to put a DART station in the Indian Ocean at 9 degrees north, 89 degrees east, halfway between Thailand and Sri Lanka. (See related article.)

The DART system provides real-time tsunami detection as waves travel across open waters. Each station is part of a larger end-to-end warning system that includes tide gauges, communications upgrades, inundation (flooding) modeling and warning dissemination systems.

It is the first of 24 DART tsunameters envisioned for an Indian Ocean regional tsunami warning system through the UNESCO Intergovernmental Ocean Commission (IOC), which has lead responsibility for the multinational effort to develop the Indian Ocean's regional warning capabilities.

NOAA worked through the IOC to present the conceptual design of the full Indian Ocean system, which includes sea-level and seismic monitoring systems, warning communications and community readiness. NOAA also developed a detailed plan for siting the 24 tsunameters in the Indian Ocean.

Over the past two years, said Curt Barrett, director of the Indian Ocean Project at NOAA, “the first operational DART buoy was deployed, tide gages have been installed or improved, seismometers upgraded, training workshops held and critical “how to” documents developed that will be distributed to vulnerable communities and national governments next year.”

NOAA plans to contribute one more DART station to the region in 2007 as part of a two-year, $16.6 million U.S. contribution to the Indian Ocean tsunami warning system. (See related article.)

The system will be completed with contributions of tsunami-detection stations from Indonesia, India, Malaysia, Germany, Australia and other nations.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) manages the U.S. effort – called the U.S. Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning System (IOTWS) program – that supports regional and national tsunami and multihazard warning systems. The program also is supported by contributions from NOAA, the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Trade and Development Agency.

U.S. scientists and experts work regionally and in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, the Maldives and India to help develop an end-to-end warning system, share their technical expertise and help build a multihazard warning capacity that lets governments and communities detect and prepare for tsunamis and other coastal hazards.


The U.S. team is working in Sri Lanka and Thailand to develop systematic warning and communication procedures that improve national capacities to receive and analyze data and to warn communities.

USFS improved the management of disaster warnings in Sri Lanka by introducing the Incident Command System, a process that helps government and civil society quickly coordinate actions in emergency situations.

At the National Disaster Warning Center (NDWC) in Thailand, NOAA and USFS conducted training to help establish a Tsunami Alert Rapid Notification System, a program for analyzing and determining how best to disseminate a tsunami alert from a central point at the national level to the public at risk and to all relevant entities – like emergency-response agencies – in the country.

An essential component of an end-to-end warning system is an established protocol that shows how a warning will be received and transmitted from the national level to individual communities.

USTDA is contributing more than $2.5 million to help develop national warning centers in Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Thailand. Over the past year, USTDA has provided technical assistance to the NDWC, introducing such a “concept of operations” into its warning framework.

“The building process has begun,” Barrett said, “but there is a lot of work scheduled over the next year to strengthen the initial system. The U.S. program will end in late 2007. By then, communications systems will be significantly upgraded, another DART buoy will be installed and many communities and organizations will be trained to build resilient coastal communities.”

The U.S. team launched the Coastal Community Resilience Initiative with regional partners to provide tools and strategies for communities to assess and improve their preparedness for tsunamis and other coastal hazards. Through this and other efforts, the U.S. program trained 100,000 people in 200 communities in disaster preparedness.

The U.S. program also has issued 18 small grant totaling $750,000 to local nongovernmental organizations and universities - vital links between national disaster management efforts and implementation of preparedness activities in coastal communities.

“Even if another tsunami never occurs, the system being developed will help countries significantly improve warnings and mitigate losses from many other natural hazards such as cyclones,” Barrett said.

“The question is,” he added, “will the system and the equipment be maintained and ready when and if another tsunami occurs? Will countries continue to build on the initial system established by this USAID project? Or will the memories fade and funding be reduced, leaving the region vulnerable to another catastrophic tsunami?”

Additional information about the U.S. IOTWS is available on the program’s Web site.