05 January 2005

Technological limitations frustrate boffins

Ewa Beach - For scientists at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre, the world's most powerful earthquake happened below the wrong ocean.

They sat by helplessly when an 9.0-magnitude quake underneath the Indian Ocean last week touched off a series of tsunamis that killed more than 139 000 people in southern Asia and Africa.

There were no instruments, such as tide gauges that measure sea levels, set up there to let them know what waves were on the way. With the instruments, the scientists think they could have issued warnings that save lives.

"It's just very, very frustrating," said geophysicist Stuart Weinstein, who was on duty when the disaster struck. "It's frustrating for us to learn about destructive waves from a wire report, as opposed to a tide gauge."

Weinstein and his colleagues could only surmise the earthquake off the Indonesian island of Sumatra would set off a tsunami near its epicentre. They had no way of telling what other shores it might hit or exactly when.

"I think people have a misconception about how much we know," said Charles McCreery, the centre's director. Predictions are not possible without tide gauges or other such instruments in place, he said.

On Monday, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono announced his nation would join in an international effort to set up an early-warning system for the Indian Ocean region.

Hawaii has been dealing with the fear of tsunamis since 1946, when hundreds of people were killed in Hilo after an Alaskan earthquake triggered a massive tidal wave. The Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre was established three years later and has been at Ewa Beach since 1960, with a modern international warning system in place since 1965.

The warning centre's 75-hectare compound, where most of the scientists also live, sits two blocks from the beach in a residential stretch of land west of Pearl Harbour.

Within 15 minutes of first learning about the Indonesia earthquake, geophysicist Barry Hirshorn and Weinstein put out a bulletin. They issued a second bulletin 49 minutes later, revising the quake's strength from a magnitude 8.0 to 8.5.

Two hours later, through Internet reports, they learned a tsunami hit Sri Lanka. Then officials from Sri Lanka began to call - a navy commander, someone in the president's office, the US ambassador, and the port master.

The scientists managed to reach Madagascar and the Mauritius Islands through the state department in Washington. An official there said they would try to contact Kenya and Somalia.

"We tried to get people who had not yet gotten hit," Hirshorn said.

Hawaii also hosts a system to distribute warnings to the United States and 25 other member nations participating in an international tsunami programme. Although Indonesia and Thailand receive the warnings, Sri Lanka and India do not.

Federal officials are looking to bolster the warning system in the Pacific. Another centre in Palmer, Alaska, monitors that state and the West Coast.

Three years ago, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) installed sensors on the ocean floor to transmit tsunami data to a buoy on the surface that zips it to a satellite and back to the scientists in seconds.

Six sensors are in place, and the plan is to someday place 20 sensors around the Pacific. Now, there is talk of making that happen in the next three years, officials said.

"It's a lot of world to cover," said Jeff LaDouce of NOAA. "We have a technology and we're interested in making that technology available."

For more information visit the International Tsunami Information Centre's website


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