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Indonesian tsunami-monitoring system lacked basic equipment

Telephone line needed to relay warning signals was cut off in 2000.

Sri Lanka could have been warned hours before the tsunami hit. Credit: © AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe

A monitoring station that could have provided early warning of the devastating Indian Ocean tsunamis lacked the telephone connection needed to relay news of the impending disaster, has learned.

A seismograph designed to detect the earthquakes that cause tsunamis was installed on the Indonesian island of Java in 1996, but the data it collects is not sent to the central government in Jakarta because the telephone line has been disconnected since an office move in 2000.

The millions of dollars needed for a warning system would have saved thousands and thousands of lives. Vasily Titov , Tsunami researcher, Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory, Seattle

Officials in Jakarta were alerted to the earthquake that caused the giant waves by readings from the country's other 60 or so seismographs, but a lack of data from the specialized Java station prevented them from issuing a tsunami warning, says Nanang Puspito, head of the earthquake laboratory at the Bandung Institute of Technology in Indonesia.

Countries such as Sri Lanka and India, which suffered thousands of casualties, could potentially have been warned some two hours before the waves completed the 1,500-kilometre journey from the earthquake's epicentre off Indonesia.

Communication failure

Better-equipped warning systems elsewhere also failed to alert the relevant authorities. A network of seabed pressure sensors and seismographs, run by the United Nations, can detect Pacific Ocean tsunamis within minutes.

You need a set of protocols about how to warn people. That's more critical than the science. Bill McGuire , Director of the Benfield Hazard Research Centre, London, UK

The system issued a warning about the 26 December earthquake just 15 minutes after it was detected, but the network is designed to serve countries around the Pacific Ocean, such as the United States and Australia. Officials in charge were unable to reach authorities in Indian Ocean nations.

The need for a similar system in the Indian Ocean has been discussed at regular intervals by the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, the UN body that runs the Pacific network, since at least 1999. The most recent meeting of the Commission to discuss the threat was in June 2004, although no direct action was decided upon.

"It is always on the agenda," says Vasily Titov, a tsunami researcher at the Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle, Washington. But he says that it has been difficult to raise the money required. "Only two weeks ago it would have sounded crazy," he says. "But it sounds very reasonable now. The millions of dollars needed would have saved thousands and thousands of lives."

Prior warning

Seismologists monitoring sensors in the Pacific ocean issued a warning 15 minutes after the quake was detected, but failed to reach the appropriate authorities. Credit: © British Geological Survey

Hazard-mitigation experts add that a lack of technology is only part of the problem. Bill McGuire, a hazard researcher at University College London, UK, says that Indonesian authorities could have worked out from their seismograph data that the quake would generate tsunamis.

"But that [alone] wouldn't help," he says. "You need a set of protocols about how to warn people, such as sirens on the streets. That's more critical than the science."

McGuire suspects that the lack of such protocols in Indian Ocean nations is due in part to the infrequency of tsunamis in the region. If there hasn't been an event in living memory, "people don't think it will happen again," he says.

The Pacific monitoring system was set up in 1965, following tsunamis generated by quakes in Chile in 1960 and Alaska in 1964. But the last event on a similar scale in the Indian Ocean, caused by the eruption of Krakatau, took place in 1883.


Additional information

Tsunami researcher, Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory, SeattleDirector of the Benfield Hazard Research Centre, London, UK

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International Co-ordination Group for the Tsunami Warning System in the Pacific

Benfield Hazard Research Centre

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Giles, J., Marris, E. Indonesian tsunami-monitoring system lacked basic equipment. Nature (2004).

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