December 30, 2004

NOAA Calls for Tsunami Warning System

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The U.S. weather chief called Wednesday for a global surveillance system to detect and forecast disasters like tsunamis, hoping the tragedy in Asia will build the political resolve to buy and deploy equipment.

"It just hasn't happened, it hasn't gotten enough priority inside of each nation to support it," Conrad C. Lautenbacher, a retired Navy vice admiral who heads the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told The Associated Press. "It's a matter of priorities and resources. There's nothing to stop us from doing it in a technical sense."

Talk about a worldwide observation system has gone on for decades. An international warning system for tsunamis began in 1965, the year after tsunamis associated with a magnitude 9.2 quake struck Alaska.

Lautenbacher said it could save tens of thousands of lives in the future - and might even have predicted the tsunamis that hit Asia and Africa this weekend.

"They would have known where the areas of danger are," he said, adding that some studies have shown as much as four-fifths of a population could be saved. "You could have evacuated or moved people out of these areas. They could have walked out of the areas, quite frankly."

President Bush said Wednesday it was important to build an early warning system for tsunamis worldwide. Closer to home, he directed Interior Secretary Gale Norton and Commerce Secretary Don Evans to check if the West Coast is adequately protected.

"I think part of the long-term strategy in how to deal with a natural disaster is to make sure we, the world, has a proper tsunami warning system," Bush said. "Clearly, there wasn't a proper warning system in place for that part of the world. And it seems like to me it makes sense for the world to come together to develop a warning system that will help all nations."

Twenty-six countries now make up the International Coordination Group for the Tsunami Warning System. India and Sri Lanka, hit hard by the latest catastrophe, do not participate.

The system tries to predict where tsunamis will strike up to a half-day in advance, using earthquake seismic sensors, tidal gauges and buoys attached to instruments on the ocean floor that measure small changes in pressure.

But there are no such buoys and few tidal gauges in the Indian Ocean, the world's third largest, where the latest tsunamis struck. Only Thailand had any warning system among the 12 countries ravaged by tsunamis, but India said Wednesday it would install such a system.

"Everybody that borders an ocean should be part of it," Lautenbacher said. "And it doesn't cost much. It's a matter of will to do it."

For its part, NOAA oversees an $800 million-a-year environmental satellite network and $8 million-a-year system of ocean monitors for tsunami warnings in the Pacific Ocean. The agency hopes to add 15 more buoys to the six it has there, which cost about $200,000 each, so that it can cover all that ocean's major fault zones.

Beyond tsunamis, a system for sharing thousands of measurements of the Earth is being created by 54 nations that plan to sign a U.S.-backed agreement in February in Brussels, Belgium. Lautenbacher urged more nations to join in the efforts, aimed at sharing useful information based on data gathered worldwide - much of it already collected.

That would provide huge benefits for agriculture, energy, transportation, fisheries management, coastal zone development, and climate science, he said.

"Look at how many lives we save in the United States from hurricanes by having accurate forecasts," Lautenbacher said, adding the same could be done with tsunamis, tornadoes, sea storms and floods. "You could do this around the world."


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