Indonesia's New Tsunami Warning System

Disaster prediction where, the historical record indicates, it's needed most

Aftermath of Sri Lankan Tsunami
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Nearly four years after a series of disastrous tsunami waves struck coastlines bordering the Indian Ocean, a new Tsunami Early Warning System is up and running in Indonesia. Using a series of buoys linked to detectors that sit on the ocean floor, the new high-tech warning system will be able to detect an undersea earthquake and predict within minutes whether it will cause a tsunami.

Catastrophic tsunamis result from undersea earthquakes or landslides, and when earthquake-generated tsunamis occur off the coast of Indonesia, the waves can reach the coast in as little as twenty minutes -- leaving little to no warning time for residents in high-risk areas. The 2004 tsunami reached the province of Banda Aceh just a quarter of an hour after a magnitude-9.1 earthquake struck, resulting in 140,000 deaths in that region alone.

The launch of the new system comes just after scientists reported finding evidence of previous large-scale tsunamis in Indonesia. Two research teams, one working on a barrier island on the west coast of Thailand and another in Aceh, Indonesia, uncovered evidence of at least three major tsunamis in the past 2,800 years -- the most recent of which occurred 550 to 700 years ago. Their findings were reported in an October issue of the journal Nature.

Evidence of past tsunamis helps scientists estimate how often they occur, and sparse knowledge among locals about the region's tsunami history contributed to the loss of life in 2004, the researchers say. "A region's tsunami history can serve as a long-term warning system," said Brian Atwater, a professor at the University of Washington and a U.S. Geological Survey geologist.

Foreign countries who donated funding for Indonesia's new warning system will manage it for the first two years; in 2010 Indonesia will assume full responsibility. Experts hope that by combining the technical capabilities of the new system with public education about regional tsunami history, another disaster like the one in 2004 will be avoided.