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Saturday, Jan. 15, 2005

South Asia to get tsunami warning system

Japan offers to help set it up but experts warn of logistic problems

Staff writer

Governments and experts say that a tsunami warning system could have saved thousands of lives from the waves that struck Southern Asia on Dec. 26, killing more than 150,000 people.

Japan, which has some of the world's most advanced tsunami prediction technology, said earlier this week that $4 million of the $250 million it has pledged for international relief in the region will go to setting up a system to monitor seismic activity below the Indian Ocean.

"Any disaster in Asia is also our own," Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said in his address to an emergency tsunami summit in Jakarta last week.

"Japan will make vigorous efforts . . . to promptly establish a tsunami early warning mechanism for the Indian Ocean countries."

But while experts welcomed the move, they also pointed out the hurdles to successfully introducing the system, including improving the poor communications infrastructure and finding personnel who can manage the system and issue warnings to countries.

A special session to discuss a tsunami warning system for the Indian Ocean rim is to be held at the five-day United Nations World Conference on Disaster Reduction in Kobe starting on Tuesday.

Government officials and tsunami experts plan to attend from countries that include Japan, the United States, Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Australia, according to the Meteorological Agency.

Tomoo Inoue, assistant director of the agency's planning division, said the basic functions of the Indian Ocean system would probably be similar to that currently in place for 26 Pacific Rim countries, including Japan and the U.S.

This monitoring system was established in 1968, after countries in the Pacific region saw significant damage from tsunamis triggered by an earthquake centered off the coast of Chile in May 1960.

The U.S.-operated Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii serves as the core of the Pacific Ocean warning system, monitoring earthquakes and tsunamis in the region at stations set up by the center as well as by 26 Pacific Rim countries.

The PTWC issues tsunami warnings to member states when it observes temblors that register a magnitude greater than 7.5. For earthquakes of a smaller magnitude, the center sends a notice to the countries.

Inoue said he was confident, given the effectiveness of the Pacific system, that countries with tsunami experience would be able to pass on technology and expertise to those in the Indian Ocean region.

The U.S., for example, has earthquake expertise through its operation of the Hawaiian warning center, Inoue said. Americans are also capable of gathering earthquake information in virtually real time through a worldwide seismographic monitoring network that operates under the supervision of the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology, a university research consortium.

Japan also has a system that enables it to issue tsunami warnings to coastal areas through local governments and the media.

It has developed its own system to predict the height of a wave and estimated time at which it will reach the shore by using a database of tsunami simulations, he said.

"I believe Japan is the (global) leader when it comes to predicting tsunamis based on simulations," Inoue said.

According to Tatsuo Kuwayama, head of the Meteorological Agency's tsunami research section, 100,000 tsunami patterns have been calculated based on such things as magnitude and fault direction for earthquakes that could occur in the waters surrounding Japan

When an earthquake is detected at any of the 180 seismographic stations that operate around the clock nationwide, agency officials immediately check the database and calculate the estimated dimensions and arrival time of tsunamis, Kuwayama said.

"Our objective is to issue tsunami information within three minutes after an earthquake occurs," he said.

Fumihiko Imamura, a Tohoku University professor who researches tsunamis, said the basics are there for Indian Ocean rim countries to adopt Japan's prediction system.

To simulate tsunamis, these nations need to know the geography of the Indian Ocean floor. Major seabed features have already been surveyed by researchers in industrialized countries and simulations can be based on this information, according to Imamura, who was recently in Sri Lanka to conduct field research on the latest tsunamis.

Although many countries in the region do not have seismographs, they might be able to use information gathered by the global earthquake observation network of IRIS, he added.

However, one hitch might be with the operation rather than the establishment of an early warning system.

Tomohiko Hatori, a senior researcher at the Asian Disaster Reduction Center in Kobe, said people with tsunami expertise are needed to operate a prediction and warning system.

"It's not just an issue of the hardware to monitor earthquakes and tsunamis -- these countries need people to record seismic phenomena, analyze data and maintain equipment," he said, adding that Japan can assist the Indian Ocean rim nations that lack the necessary personnel by providing training.

Meanwhile, Imamura of Tohoku University said Southern Asian countries need to build better communication infrastructure so that warnings are promptly issued and people evacuated.

He said that unlike Japan, these nations lack community wireless systems for issuing warnings, and many citizens do not have radios or televisions. These governments should at least ensure that coastal communities have radios so residents can receive tsunami warnings, he said.

They should also draw up maps for residents showing them areas where they can seek refuge, as local governments do in Japan, Imamura said.

But experts agree that warnings and maps are useless unless people know about the dangers of tsunamis. They stress the importance of educating the public.

Even in quake-prone Japan, many people are not fully aware of the waves' perils, according to Kunihiro Moritaka, a Fire and Disaster Management Agency official.

During past tsunamis, "there were residents who did not evacuate despite an evacuation order, and some who even dared to (approach the shore) to get a look at the tsunami," he said.

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