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Wednesday 29 December 2004

Scientists in USA saw tsunami coming

Minutes after a massive earthquake rocked the Indian Ocean on Sunday, international ocean monitors knew that a tsunami would likely follow. But they didn't know whom to tell.

"We put out a bulletin within 20 minutes, technically as fast as we could do it," says Jeff LaDouce of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. LaDouce says e-mails were dispatched to Indonesian officials, but he doesn't know what happened to the information.

The problem is that Sunday's earthquake struck the unmonitored Indian Ocean. An international system of buoys and monitoring stations - the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center based in Hawaii - spans the Pacific, alerting nations there to any oncoming disasters. But no such system guards the Indian Ocean.

(There isn't one in the Atlantic Ocean because there are comparatively few earthquakes there. LaDouce says efforts are being made in the Caribbean to set up a warning system after last year's tsunami caused by the volcanic collapse on the island of Montserrat.)

"Sumatra has an ample history of great earthquakes, which makes the lack of a tsunami warning system in the Indian Ocean all the more tragic," says geologist Brian Atwater of the U.S. Geological Survey (news - web sites). "Everyone knew Sumatra was a loaded gun."

On Monday, Asian government officials, notably in India, discussed plans to coordinate efforts to develop an Indian Ocean system. "It's a people problem, not a technology problem," says geophysicist Teng-fong Wong of the State University of New York-Stony Brook. "Governments just have to cooperate."

In fact, the detector buoys that monitor tsunami surges have been available for decades. They record water heights and send measurements throughout the Pacific network. False alarms are a concern, slowing the speed with which bulletins can be released. A 1986 false alarm in Hawaii cost more than $30 million in evacuation costs.


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