Sending the buoys out to sea may be well worth the investment

The tsunami that killed more than 280,000 people in Asia is a prime example of how technology could have been used by governments to help save lives. One message from this disaster is that we are all connected, that what happens in some remote corner of the globe affects us all. And it’s a prime

opportunity for developed countries to work with governments in less-developed nations — not to dictate a political philosophy, but to provide solutions that can help people in the event of any future disaster.

It’s understandable, though, why there wasn’t a tsunami warning system in place. No one was worried about it — after all, the last recorded tsunami there took place in 1883. The proper equipment — such as buoys, seismic stations and satellites — could have helped save lives, but governments were reluctant to spend a huge chunk of cash on something they thought they’d never have to use.

No one is questioning it now. One advantage these governments will have, though, is access to the latest technical developments in this area — so they’ll get a bigger bang for their buck. What they should consider, however, is taking a “”multi-hazard”” approach and using technology to predict not only tsunamis, but other natural disasters as well.

In the Pacific Ocean, a network of seismic stations, coastal tide gauges and deep-water buoys can detect tsunamis within minutes. The Deep-ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunamis (DART) program has deployed six buoys in the Pacific Ocean from Alaska to the equator. Data is collected on changes in sea level and pressure from the floor and surface of the ocean; the strength of the tsunami depends on the displacement of water on the ocean floor. Each buoy has a pressure sensor that can measure a rise in sea level. That data is then transmitted to a surface buoy and sent by satellite to warning stations. The data is made available to 26 member-nations in the Pacific.

But the buoys don’t come cheap. Each costs about US$250,000 — one reason Asian governments haven’t adopted a similar system. And that doesn’t include the cost of deploying and maintaining the system, or hiring qualified people to monitor and evaluate the data it produces.

But advances in computer modelling, satellite telemetry and monitoring tools will make readings more accurate. The Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle, for example, is working on a network of earthquake monitors, two-way communicating ocean buoys and computer models that it says will make “”instant”” predictions.

The United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction says a tsunami warning system should be built within a year in the Indian Ocean. The Indian government, for its part, has come under local pressure — considering the country’s large scientific resources — for failing to warn its citizens along the coast. It now plans to spend up to $29 million to build a tsunami warning system. It will import 10 to 12 seafloor pressure sensors from the U.S., as well as floating sensors on buoys, linked to a geostationary satellite.

But what is perhaps more important than the technology itself is effective communications. In Indonesia, for example, a seismograph designed to detect earthquakes that cause tsunamis was installed in 1996, but the data collected was never sent to the central government in Jakarta because of a disconnected phone line (due to an office move in 2000).

Also, an effective warning and evacuation plan is needed — some sort of infrastructure that will get information to people in coastal areas.

This could be the most difficult task of all. How do you warn millions of people in countries where many of them don’t have access to modern-day communications? This is another area where governments have to communicate and work together to come up with localized solutions.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Vawn Himmelsbach
Vawn Himmelsbach
Is a Toronto-based journalist and regular contributor to IT World Canada's publications.

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