by Lee Bowman
Scripps Howard News Service
January 15, 2005
The U.S. Geological Survey, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and White House science adviser John Marburger outlined plans to expand the existing Pacific tsunami warning system and to set up a new network of tidal wave sensors to protect the Atlantic coast and the Caribbean basin.
Seismic sensors maintained or monitored by Japan and the United States will continue to provide what warnings they can around the Indian Ocean until the region is able to set up its own alert system, which many scientists anticipate could happen as early as next year.
Experts say the more than 157,000 deaths in 11 nations from the Dec. 26 earthquake and tsunami could have been substantially reduced if a modern detection and warning system had been in place.
"The U.S. is doing everything we can to prevent similar disasters in the future in the United States and abroad by building detection and response capabilities for all peoples, particularly in the Indian Ocean," Marburger told reporters in Washington.
Plans to set up provisional warning systems for the Indian Ocean will be discussed by experts at the United Nations World Conference on Disaster Reduction next week in Kobe, Japan. Officials from nations affected by the tsunami will discuss how to best share the limited information from warning centers in the United States and Japan.
Tsunami experts in the two countries were aware of the potential wave threat in the Indian Ocean following the magnitude 9.0 earthquake off Sumatra last month, but had no direct information that tsunamis were imminent. Since they're set up only for Pacific warnings, they had no formal method to contact emergency officials in the affected areas.
Marburger and other officials said in addition to expanding the monitoring network, effective preparation for future tsunamis will require more mapping and computer modeling to understand which areas are at risk from different types of events; an established warning network for alerts; and educating the public in coastal zones here and abroad to understand what the warnings mean.
NOAA and USGS will get an additional $37.5 million over the next two years. Much of the money will go to the Deep-ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunami buoy system, run by NOAA, which now has six buoys deployed from Alaska to the equator. The number of buoys, which sense the passage of a tsunami through pressure gauges on the ocean floor, then relay the information by satellite to a warning center, would be bumped by 32 in the Pacific and Atlantic by mid-2007.
In addition, the USGS, in partnership with the National Science Foundation, will upgrade its monitoring capabilities and information processing from the Global Seismic Network, a global system of earthquake sensors.
Patrick Leahy, associate director of the USGS, explained that some seismically active areas able to affect the U.S. coast either lack sensors, or the sensors in place aren't available in real-time to the National Earthquake Information Center in Golden, Colo.
"About 20 percent of the sensors around the world are available to us only through dial-up connections, including an instrument in Thailand that was closest to the center of the Dec. 26 quake," Leahy said.
The monitoring system for the Pacific was first set up in the 1960s following major earthquakes in Chile and Alaska that triggered devastating tsunamis in Hawaii and along the West Coast. The events are most common in the Pacific, which is ringed by active seismic zones.
In the past 150 years, the Caribbean has had more than 50 tsunamis and the Atlantic more than 30, about half off U.S. and Canadian coasts, according to NOAA. But the last event that caused significant damage and loss of life happened in 1755, following an earthquake in Portugal.
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