The 9.0 magnitude earthquake Sunday morning was the fourth most severe since 1900, and the strongest since a 9.2 magnitude temblor in Alaska in 1964, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. It occurred at a depth of 6.2 miles, shifting a 620-mile section of subsurface tectonic plate. That triggered the massive sea surges that traveled for thousands of miles at speeds of up to 500 miles per hour.
While the earthquake probably could not have been predicted, once it occurred, it would have been hard to miss:
The total energy released by a magnitude 9.0 earthquake exceeds the total amount of energy consumed in the United States in one month, or the energy released by the wind of a hurricane like Hurricane Isabel over a period of 70 days
In the Pacific Ocean, we track such quakes and issue tsunami alerts through sophisticated alert system In fact, there is an
International Coordination Group for the Tsunami Warning System in the Pacific
IOC established the International Coordination Group for the Tsunami Warning System in the Pacific (ICG/ITSU) in 1968. The main purpose of the group is to assure that tsunami watches, warning and advisory bulletins are disseminated throughout the Pacific to member states in accordance with procedures outlined in the Communication Plan for the Tsunami Warning System. The Group has a membership of 26 countries: Australia, Canada, Chile, China, Colombia, Cook Islands, Costa Rica, Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Ecuador, El Salvador, Fiji, France, Guatemala, Indonesia, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Peru, Republic of the Philippines, Republic of Korea, Russian Federation, Samoa, Singapore, Thailand, and the United States of America. The network includes national tsunami warning centres, regional tsunami warning centres (PTWC, Hawaii; WC/ATWC, Alaska; NWPTIC, Japan; CPPT, Tahiti; and SNAM, Chile) and the International Tsunami Information Centre (ITIC) in Honolulu, Hawaii.
Notably, India and Sri Lanka are not members, although Indonesia and Thailand are.
Here is what ITSU does:
The ITSU system makes use of the hundreds of seismic stations throughout the world that are available in real, or near-real, time to locate earthquakes capable of generating Tsunamis and analyze the faulting properties of the earthquake in order to ascertain the dominant direction of energy release and propagation. It has near real time access via satellite and telephone to over 100 water level stations throughout the Pacific that can be used to verify the generation and possible severity of a tsunami. The system disseminates tsunami information and warning messages to well over 100 points scattered across the Pacific.
According to MSNBC, the governments in those countries affected by the current disaster claim they cannot afford their own tsunami tracking system.
Asian officials conceded Monday that they failed to issue broad public warnings immediately after a massive undersea earthquake, an act that could have saved countless lives from the subsequent giant waves that smashed into 10 countries. But governments insisted they did not know the true nature of the threat because there was no international system in place to track tidal waves in the Indian Ocean -- an area where they are rare -- and they can't afford to buy sophisticated equipment to build one.
WaPo similarly reports:
The real tragedy, many experts acknowledged yesterday, is that thousands of lives in countries such as Sri Lanka, India and Thailand could have been saved if an early warning system similar to one that exists for the Pacific Ocean had been in place. U.S. officials said that they wanted to warn the countries but that there was no mechanism to do so.
But this is not quite true.
According to ITSU an "information bulletin" about the earthquake was issued immediately to all member nations:
On Sunday 26 December 2004 at 8:14 p.m. EST, within minutes following an alarm signaling a strong earthquake in the Indian Ocean, NOAA's Tsunami Warning Centers in Hawaii and Alaska issued information bulletins to all ICG/ITSU member states and other Pacific nations indicating that a magnitude 8.0 earthquake (later upgraded to M9.0 by the U. S. Geological Survey) had occurred off the west coast of Northern Sumatra, Indonesia. According to the agreed-upon procedures for the International Tsunami Warning System in the Pacific, this event did not pose a threat to the Pacific. The PTWC (Pacific Tsunami Warning Center), however, continued to monitor the event.
NOAA's website includes almost word-for-word the same paragraph.
The method of contact is not stated. However, the ITSU Indonesian contact is listed as:
Dr. Mastur Masturyono
Head, Geophysical and Calibration Division
Meteorological & Geophysical Agency
P.O. Box 3540
Tel: <62> (21) 424 6474
Fax: <62> (21) 424 6703
Web Site: http://www.bmg.go.id
There is also a contact listed for Thailand, but completely lacking phone or email contact information:
Lt. Sukit Yensung
Ministry of Communication
Web Site: unknown
While I can find no information has to whether these two gentlemen actually received the information bulletin, or when or how, it appears that U.S. scientists were at least trying to make contact through other means as well:
U.S. officials who detected a massive earthquake off the Indonesian island of Sumatra yesterday tried frantically to warn that a deadly wall of water was coming, the head of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center said.
But there was no official tsunami alert system in many of the countries that were hit, said Charles McCreery, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's center in Honolulu.
"We tried to do what we could," McCreery said. "We don't have contacts in our address book for anybody in that part of the world."
Within moments of detecting the quake, McCreery and his staff were on the phone to Australia, then to U.S. naval officials, various U.S. embassies and finally the State Department.
They were unable to reach the countries most severely affected -- including India, Thailand and Sri Lanka -- because none had a tsunami warning mechanism or tidal gauges to alert people, he said.
Again, however, this conflates the issue of HAVING a technology-based warning system with the communications issues of having a responsible government contact, and more importantly, a local system to alert the people.
The New York Times was a little more accurate:
Within 15 minutes of the earthquake, in fact, scientists running the existing tsunami warning system for the Pacific, where such waves are far more common, sent an alert from their Honolulu hub to 26 participating countries, including Thailand and Indonesia, that destructive waves might be generated by the Sumatra tremors.
But there was no way to convey that information speedily to countries or communities an ocean away, said Dr. Laura S. L. Kong, a Commerce Department seismologist and director of the International Tsunami Information Center, an office run under the auspices of the United Nations.
Phone calls were hurriedly made to countries in the Indian Ocean danger zone, she said, but not with the speed that comes from pre-established emergency planning.
"Outside the Pacific these things don't occur very often at all so the challenge is how to make people and government officials aware," she said.
To its credit, the Sri Lanka government is now accepting responsibility.
She said: "We've never been affected by a thing like this before, so probably we got very lax about it. That's not an excuse, but that should be the reason."
Thai officials also are not dodging the blame:
Thammasarote Smith, a former senior forecaster at Thailand's Meteorological Department, said governments could have done much more to warn people about the danger.
"The department had up to an hour to announce the emergency message and evacuate people but they failed to do so," Mr. Thammasarote was quoted as saying in the Bangkok Post newspaper.
"It is true that an earthquake is unpredictable but a tsunami, which occurs after an earthquake, is predictable," he said.
Kathawudhi Marlairojanasiri, the department's chief weather forecaster, said it issued warnings through radio and television beginning at 9 a.m. Sunday about a possible undertow along the southwest coast of Thailand, where tens of thousands of foreign tourists were vacationing.
But the warnings came after the first waves hit.
So what comes next? A USGS spokeswoman says creating a tsunami warning system for the region would be a challenge.
"This crosses so many countries and so many boundaries in that part of the world and the warning system would have to be so geographically diverse," she said. "We're talking about educating people to what the warning means, what you have to do.
"They're transient, they live in small villages, these things don't happen every day," she said.
Meanwhile, it turns out that ANYONE can register for tsunami warnings from the Pacific Center. Go look -- all it takes is inserting an email address.
So, how hard would it be to collect a few email addresses for appropriate officials and scientists in countries potentially at risk and plug them into this system to make sure that the US "address books" DO contain the appropriate contact information? Shouldn't this already have been in place as the most minimal stop-gap measure for alerting countries at risk but without the sophisticated technological systems we have? Didn't OUR communications systems also fail here?