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Tsunami Warning System a Global Effort


It's been one year now since an earthquake and tsunami in the Indian Ocean left about 270,000 people dead or missing. Scientists who monitor the planet for earthquakes and tsunamis were unable to warn people in time. Since then, they've been improving the tools of their predictive trade, and NPR's Christopher Joyce has an update.


When the earth ruptured under the Indian Ocean a year ago, scientists halfway around the world knew within minutes a big quake had hit, but it took many more minutes to figure out how big. Even then, scientists didn't realize it had created a giant tsunami. So they're organizing efforts to do a better job next time. Patricio Bernal heads the United Nations Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission. It's helping countries in the Indian Ocean create a warning system.

Mr. PATRICIO BERNAL (United Nations Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission): I think we're half there in terms of having an effective warning system operating and enabled to detect a tsunami in the Indian Ocean and warn the populations. Much more work on it will need to be done in terms of preparation.

JOYCE: Preparation means hiring people around the Indian Ocean to listen for and analyze seismic signals and data from ocean buoys. Money has been raised from around the world to pay for that, and Bernal says there's still plenty of local enthusiasm to spend it.

Mr. BERNAL: We are very close to the disaster and the tragedy and the psychological impact is very vividly, you know, in the memory of everybody, so this is--it's a factor that somehow has helped us to really raise the issue to the level it requires in order to take action.

JOYCE: There's been technical help, too. Germany has installed two sensors in the Indian Ocean that measure actual tsunamis underwater. The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has helped install 25 more sea-level buoys there as well; more are planned. Indian Ocean countries have agreed to share seismic information, although India has set restrictions on what they'll reveal. At the same time, scientists are honing their ability to read an earthquake faster, to tell whether it might lead to a tsunami. Dave Wald is a seismologist at the US Geological Survey.

Mr. DAVE WALD (US Geological Survey): Typically in the past, it would take days of evaluation before we could determine the real size of the earthquake, and we're trying to expedite that by developing new software that looks at these really big earthquakes and gives us a good indication right away.

JOYCE: One of the tragedies of last year's quake was that scientists didn't know who to call in the affected area. Now the USGS and NOAA have new lines of communication across the Indian Ocean region and they're on duty 24 hours a day. The biggest remaining obstacle, however, is the last mile, getting warnings out to coastal communities. Charles McCreery runs NOAA's Pacific tsunami warning system. He says educating people about tsunamis is one solution.

Mr. CHARLES McCREERY (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration): In Thailand, for example, the water withdrew for many, many minutes before the big wave came, and if just, you know, even one out of every 10 people had known that that was the sign of a tsunami coming, they could have alerted the other people.

JOYCE: And that knowledge, says McCreery, will have to be handed down through generations.

Mr. McCREERY: There's long time intervals between these events, and to try to stay prepared over those long time intervals is the big challenge, and it's going to require the cooperation of governments all around the world to do this.

JOYCE: All this activity has had a spillover effect in the US. The government has installed more warning devices near the California coast and in the Caribbean, and government scientists say they're enjoying a bit of a renaissance in support for earthquake research. Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

INSKEEP: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Christopher Joyce is a correspondent on the science desk at NPR. His stories can be heard on all of NPR's news programs, including NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.