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The Tsunami Next Time
Jamais Cascio   Dec 28, 2004   WorldChanging  

Can we prevent the next Tsunami 2004-type disaster?

We can't stop earthquakes from happening. We can't block or dispel tsunamis before they hit shore. What we can do is prevent the kind of loss of life seen this week.

Moreover, many of the steps we can take to mitigate the danger of tsunamis would also save lives in other disasters. The two key factors? Ones we return to time and again on WorldChanging: How do we gather information? How do we communicate it?

In this case, we do well with the former. It's in communicating that we fail. But solutions are possible -- worldchanging solutions.

The late 20th century saw a revolution in our understanding of the workings of our planet. From satellite monitoring to remote sensors to increasingly detailed models, we've built a planetary science toolkit. With these tools, we're forecasting potentially ruinous changes, seeing into the past and monitoring current and coming environmental conditions. We know a remarkable amount about the Earth's geophysical systems, but there is still much more to learn.

Fortunately, the science of monitoring tsunamis is fairly well-developed. The combination of ocean depth and pressure gauges called "tsunameters" can keep close tabs on tsunamis as they travel undersea, beaming updated information to satellites; the information is sent along to the international tsunami warning network. (Depth gauges are also useful for telling us about changing sea levels as the planet warms.) But tsunameters aren't the only way of knowing that a tsunami is coming. Tsunamis are always triggered by some kind of event which displaces large amounts of water -- most often an earthquake, but occasionally a massive landslide or even an asteroid impact in the ocean. Such events are hard to miss; tsunamis simply don't happen without warning.

Although much has already been said about the lack of tsunami monitors in the Indian Ocean, the 9.0 earthquake off the tip of Sumatra itself was the biggest indicator that a tsunami was likely. And while the presence of tsunameters certainly would have helped, it's really not surprising that they weren't being used. Big tsunamis are rare outside of the Pacific Ocean -- there are no tsunameters in the Atlantic Ocean, either. The real problem was that India, Sri Lanka, Thailand and most of the other nations hit by the December 26 disaster weren't tied into the tsunami warning network, and there was no mechanism for getting the warning to the right people.

One of the downfalls of the tsunami warning system is that it assumes centralized emergency infrastructures for member nations, so that when the ITIC sends an alert, responsible parties pay attention and respond appropriately. While this kind of centralized structure is effective when it works, it is open to the single-point-of-failure problem witnessed this week. If the emergency authority is not available, there's nowhere to turn.

As the ITIC tsunami information is updated on a freely-available website, the problem isn't that the information is hidden -- but you do have to go looking for it. Although there are RSS feeds for earthquake and hurricane information (and NOAA makes its national weather data freely accessible as a matter of policy), there's no similar feed for tsunami warnings. This is unfortunate, as RSS is an ideal mechanism for distributing infrequent and irregular news updates.

Some have suggested the use of SMS as a medium for sending disaster alerts; the idea has merit, especially as an adjunct to (not replacement for) the traditional system. Most mobile phones these days support SMS, and an emergency alert message wouldn't need to hit every phone in the affected region to be useful, just enough to spread the word. As long as the cellular networks remained functioning, the mobile phones could possibly even serve a role similar to that played by ham radios -- emergency information and coordination. One could even imagine the introduction of a cellular network version of the venerable "emergency broadcast system" for TV and radio in the US, so as to ensure broad recognition that the message regards a possible disaster, and isn't just more text spam.

The downside of a formal SMS "emergency alert" idea is that it would still require that a central, responsible authority call the alarm, at the very least to reduce the possibility of hoax or hacked use. If the organization in charge is unavailable for some reason -- or, as in the case of this week's tsunami, doesn't recognize the possibility of a problem -- a centralized cellular alert network wouldn't be of much value. But alternatives are possible.

Imagine a site which collects storm/earthquake/tsunami/disease outbreak/etc. alerts and announcements, making information available by region. You can then register your SMS number or email address with the site, and give it your current location -- changeable as you travel, of course -- so the site can send you updates and alerts. RSS might also work, although one would want the RSS reader to check for updates far more frequently than is typical; a half-hour delay receiving a tsunami alert (for example) could prove fatal. The system could flag those events of particular import, and even provide short safety notices for responding to the particular danger (e.g., "seek higher ground" or "avoid contact with birds"). Imagine how many people could have survived this week's tsunami if a small number had received warnings on their mobile phones and told those around them.

Such a site does not exist today, but all the pieces are available to make it possible. It could be set up by a government agency, UNESCO, or competing commercial providers (with localized ads, services for tourists, and the like). One of you reading this could start assembling the site right now. It needs to be done. The information is available, we just need to make it more accessible. Imagine how many lives we'll save.

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Jamais Cascio
Jamais Cascio is a Senior Fellow of the IEET, and a professional futurist. He writes the popular blog Open the Future.

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