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The Tsunami Next Time

Can we prevent the next Tsunami 2004-type disaster?

We can't stop earthquakes from happening. We can't block or dispel tsunamis before they hit shore. What we can do is prevent the kind of loss of life seen this week.

Moreover, many of the steps we can take to mitigate the danger of tsunamis would also save lives in other disasters. The two key factors? Ones we return to time and again on WorldChanging: How do we gather information? How do we communicate it?

In this case, we do well with the former. It's in communicating that we fail. But solutions are possible -- worldchanging solutions.

The late 20th century saw a revolution in our understanding of the workings of our planet. From satellite monitoring to remote sensors to increasingly detailed models, we've built a planetary science toolkit. With these tools, we're forecasting potentially ruinous changes, seeing into the past and monitoring current and coming environmental conditions. We know a remarkable amount about the Earth's geophysical systems, but there is still much more to learn.

Fortunately, the science of monitoring tsunamis is fairly well-developed. The combination of ocean depth and pressure gauges called "tsunameters" can keep close tabs on tsunamis as they travel undersea, beaming updated information to satellites; the information is sent along to the international tsunami warning network. (Depth gauges are also useful for telling us about changing sea levels as the planet warms.) But tsunameters aren't the only way of knowing that a tsunami is coming. Tsunamis are always triggered by some kind of event which displaces large amounts of water -- most often an earthquake, but occasionally a massive landslide or even an asteroid impact in the ocean. Such events are hard to miss; tsunamis simply don't happen without warning.

Although much has already been said about the lack of tsunami monitors in the Indian Ocean, the 9.0 earthquake off the tip of Sumatra itself was the biggest indicator that a tsunami was likely. And while the presence of tsunameters certainly would have helped, it's really not surprising that they weren't being used. Big tsunamis are rare outside of the Pacific Ocean -- there are no tsunameters in the Atlantic Ocean, either. The real problem was that India, Sri Lanka, Thailand and most of the other nations hit by the December 26 disaster weren't tied into the tsunami warning network, and there was no mechanism for getting the warning to the right people.

One of the downfalls of the tsunami warning system is that it assumes centralized emergency infrastructures for member nations, so that when the ITIC sends an alert, responsible parties pay attention and respond appropriately. While this kind of centralized structure is effective when it works, it is open to the single-point-of-failure problem witnessed this week. If the emergency authority is not available, there's nowhere to turn.

As the ITIC tsunami information is updated on a freely-available website, the problem isn't that the information is hidden -- but you do have to go looking for it. Although there are RSS feeds for earthquake and hurricane information (and NOAA makes its national weather data freely accessible as a matter of policy), there's no similar feed for tsunami warnings. This is unfortunate, as RSS is an ideal mechanism for distributing infrequent and irregular news updates.

Some have suggested the use of SMS as a medium for sending disaster alerts; the idea has merit, especially as an adjunct to (not replacement for) the traditional system. Most mobile phones these days support SMS, and an emergency alert message wouldn't need to hit every phone in the affected region to be useful, just enough to spread the word. As long as the cellular networks remained functioning, the mobile phones could possibly even serve a role similar to that played by ham radios -- emergency information and coordination. One could even imagine the introduction of a cellular network version of the venerable "emergency broadcast system" for TV and radio in the US, so as to ensure broad recognition that the message regards a possible disaster, and isn't just more text spam.

The downside of a formal SMS "emergency alert" idea is that it would still require that a central, responsible authority call the alarm, at the very least to reduce the possibility of hoax or hacked use. If the organization in charge is unavailable for some reason -- or, as in the case of this week's tsunami, doesn't recognize the possibility of a problem -- a centralized cellular alert network wouldn't be of much value. But alternatives are possible.

Imagine a site which collects storm/earthquake/tsunami/disease outbreak/etc. alerts and announcements, making information available by region. You can then register your SMS number or email address with the site, and give it your current location -- changeable as you travel, of course -- so the site can send you updates and alerts. RSS might also work, although one would want the RSS reader to check for updates far more frequently than is typical; a half-hour delay receiving a tsunami alert (for example) could prove fatal. The system could flag those events of particular import, and even provide short safety notices for responding to the particular danger (e.g., "seek higher ground" or "avoid contact with birds"). Imagine how many people could have survived this week's tsunami if a small number had received warnings on their mobile phones and told those around them.

Such a site does not exist today, but all the pieces are available to make it possible. It could be set up by a government agency, UNESCO, or competing commercial providers (with localized ads, services for tourists, and the like). One of you reading this could start assembling the site right now. It needs to be done. The information is available, we just need to make it more accessible. Imagine how many lives we'll save.


Listed below are links to weblogs that reference The Tsunami Next Time:

» The Tsunami Next Time from Smart Mobs
Alex Steffen refers to this Worldchanging essay of his colleague Jamais Cascio who asks "Can we prevent the next Tsunami 2004-type disaster?" and then finds the answer is yes -- if we use the right tools and a smart mob... [Read More]

» The Tsunami Next Time from textually.org
Alex Steffen points to this WorldChanging Essays of his colleague Jamais Cascio who asks "Can we prevent the next Tsunami 2004-type disaster?" and then finds the answer is yes -- if we use the right tools - such as SMS - and a smart mob approach. [Read More]

» Texting And The AsianTsunamis from Nirmalya's blog
From sending/receiving free text messages to and from the South Asian Tsunami affected countries, to SMS Donation Campaigns, to public announcement systems offering Tsunami Alert Services via SMS, blogs around... [Read More]

» SMS disaster alert and warning systems - don't do it ! from Spy Blog
The techie end of the so called "blogosphere" is full of suggestions, following the Indian Ocean tsunami disaster along the lines of: "wouldn't it be a good idea if we set up an GSM Mobile phone Short Message Service (SMS)... [Read More]

» Mobile Networks are critical from btw.net Weblog
TITLE: Mobile Networks are critical URL: http://radio.weblogs.com/0115330/2005/11/13.html#a550 IP: BLOG NAME: btw.net Weblog DATE: 11/13/2005 07:11:09 AM [Read More]

Comments (20)


I found the comment of the official from the tsunami warning centre in Honolulu ("we knew it was coming, but don't have addresses and phone numbers of people to contact in that part of the world") callous. This essay pinpoints the issue: we're so great at collecting info, but fail to disseminate. South Asians (I live here, I experience this every day) have something that the so-called developed world is missing: they still know how to talk to each other. SMS -- sounds great. What about picking up the phone and calling cnn, abc, cbs, bbc? What about calling a five-star hotel chain -- any one would do? What about calling the UN -- any agency would do. As this essay points out, there is enough lead time for the word to spread, and therefore, for at least some people to have been alerted. Word of mouth will do wonders after that.

Venkat Ramanan:

Great article... As men use more technology for daily use, they should as well try to prevent such disasters that may occur in the future! The Tsunami warning centre chief made a casual remark that he knew about this tsunami and they had around an hour for passing on the information. A mere googling would have given them hell a lot of information as to whom to inform, consluates etc. Anyhow, if it had to happen, it would have to happen! I am from Chennai, in coastal South India, one of the worst hit in this tsunami. City is fine but the coast is completely in trauma. This is onev very rare occassion in which we could see the government working in full swing!!

Aarthi Ayyakani:

Yes!Very Good Article Indeed!
Dissenmination of information might have taken less than a minute as we have powerful instruments like mobile,mail,fax... to convey...Apart from these we have lots of TV 24 hour Channels. Though we had 60 Golden minutes, unfortunately we failed to utilise these modern day inventions to warn the people living at the other end of the Globe.

Why should anyone receiving a warning phone call believe the caller?
Any psycho can set up a dot us webpage and voynage phone number which would let him pretend to be an official goverment warning center.
Given that acting on a false report would result in some people dying (traffic accidents etc) and potentially millions of dollars in losses, it would be irresponsible of the networks or hotels to act on unverified information.

Lastly, it seems that Charles McCreery DID try to warn the countries via phone. See:

"The downside of a formal SMS "emergency alert" idea is that it would still require that a central, responsible authority call the alarm, at the very least to reduce the possibility of hoax or hacked use."

Deliberate Hoaxes (or even accidental ones) using such easily forged technologies as SMS or email or RSS feeds have got to be a major risk, which, under many circumstances will cause loss of life and financial damage, if they succeed in starting a panic.

How many people would actually have reacted correctly to an SMS tsunami warning out of the blue on Boxing Day, unless they were already subscribed to a trusted information source ?

Where is the tsunami warning system for the North Atlantic, which also has its share of volcanoes and earthquake zones ?

Mr. Sital P. Jain:

Although this week's TSUMANI disaster in South Asia is tragic,sad, and unfortunate to the five (5) physical senses,in reality the souls have left the physical bodies to take rebirth. The souls are eternal and do not die until salvation after 8.4 million lives in different forms and return to the celetial SOUL world wherefrom we originally came.It is located far beyond all planet and stars.
We must help the survivors,because we all six(6) billion people are brothers and sisters connected thru our souls.

adnan merhaba:

Your article is thought provoking, but also needs further insight/analysis. I dont think having an information network where people can have few hours of warning is sufficient for the next tsunami. Each country needs an extensive disaster avoidance plan, plan to evacuate people from the danger zones, buid resistant structures for safe havens etc. etc. What you are looking at is quite an elaborate network of organizations, plans and personel, which will require law enforcement officers, doctors, engineers etc. An information network is futile if there is no backbone support to react to the information. Also information to the masses without any control could lead to widespread chaos which could result in subsequent more disasters. I live in florida and have witnessed preparations and relief effort here for the four hurricanes that we saw last year. The time between the earthquake and the tsunami hitting the shore was somewhere around 2 hours. Here we had days of warnings of hurricanes approaching us, which in turn gave people and aid workers enough time to plan and evacuate. Assume we had two hours of warning and multiply the population 4-5 times and I think it would have spelled disaster even in US. The point here being is that the response time for the tsunami was too little and extremely difficult for anyone to propare at such short notice, not to say that advance warning would not have saved lives, but could have potentially resulted in stampedes, widespread chaos, looting and so on.
I think we need to channel our efforts to what we can do and save after the disaster. If epidemics are not kep at bay we could easily see the number of deaths double or triple. Safe drinking water, healthy living conditions and adequate nourishment are extremely important at this point and needs to be despatched to the needy before its too late.

herman tempelman:

Came across this article in September 04
The threat of a Tsunami in the Atlantic Ocean
Let's hope Washington picks up on this as

Peggy's right-- before we go on reinventing the wheel, we need to look into what the LA Times started reporting about Honolulu not being able to communicate with South Asia. That was really odd.



I'm with peggy and have been trying to find the real story. Did McCreery only contact US embassy personel? What about ham radio? Were the Thai meterological folks who sat on the information not able to access those free noaa sites that would have told of the magnitude of the quake? Couldn't the wave reports from Indonesia have been used to warn Sri Lanka and Africa for god's sake? And its not like a hurricane, here you only have to move inland from the shore a short way or move your boat to deep water. The speculation about peoples' reaction to a warning is only that. Some have said that the california experience shows that half the people go to the coast to hopefully see a big wave. ie.no panic and traffic accidents etc.

I'd say the news media is one of the institutions that fell down on this job. With any earthquake that large, they should have initiated calls to geologic services around the globe and been able to issue warnings without government prompting.

Was this woeful ignorance or simply a lack of care about what happens 'over there'?


>The Tsunami warning centre chief made a
>casual remark that he knew about this tsunami
>and they had around an hour for passing
>on the information

Can we really believe the Center Chief that he was passing the information? Where did he pass the information? Why not pass it to news agents like CNN, BBC etc.,? Why don't he pass it to responsible agencies?

It seems that he took is casually!


As great of an idea it is to use SMS for widespread disaster alerting, a telecom carrier's own network infrastructure wouldn't be able to terminate that many messages at the same time. The latency would be too long and people would receive alerts well after a tsunami hits.

Kevin -- where is your evidence that the "news media" is at fault?

There can be no substitute for trusted networks.
See this AP story about the false alert today False tsunami alarm stirs panic in India: "The Indian Meteorological Department came across a Web site warning by Terra Research." The warning is no longer to be found at terraresearch.net; the head of this research group, Larry Park, appears to have very little corroberation, if any, for his earthquake theories.



I think we need to find a way to empower the international agencies that are already active in trying to develop these types of systems to be more responsive. For instance under the framework of the Global Oceans Observation System (GOOS), there is a mechanism called the Global Oceans Data Assimilation Experiment (GODAE). And GODAE is one of these very systems that seeks to model real-time observations of the oceans. If planet-wide systems like these were able to be more directly responsive to the needs of global citizens rather than being indirectly responsive to us as our concerns are mediated through national bureaucracies and politics, perhaps the system you speak of would already be in place. And it would be a fairly respected and responsible system that forgoes the pranks that Jay warns of. The problem then is how do we create more responsive global systems. Understood, speaking about by-passing the nation-state is risky talk, but perhaps in this case and in others like it such ideas deserve contemplation.


An automated telephone alert system might be prone to hacking, abuse or distrust, but such systems are now in use. When fire spread across Southern California in 2004, residents received automated telephone calls at their homes ordering them to evacuate. Most followed the orders, likely resulting in dozens of lives being saved when firestorms destroyed entire neighborhoods in less than an hour.

Blaming the "media" for not alerting coastal residents of the impending disaster is a bit misinformed, or at least premature in the context of media markets in our time. It might be more accurate to say world media organizations were unprepared than to say they were at fault. There is no standard of performance for media organizations against which we could measure "fault."

Only an agency that has formally contracted to perform a service, such as a government agency, can be faulted for failure to provide that service. Though broadcast media companies with licensure obligations to use the publicly franchised airwaves for public benefit do get involved in meteorological warning, at least in the United States, other outlets, such as cable services, tend to see their role as that of reflecting events, not effecting outcomes. The made-up faces that pretend to be interested in the outcome of elections are actually more interested in attracting sympathetic viewers for their advertisers' benefit than they are interested in performing a public service by informing the electorate of potential impacts of their vote.

Unlike government agencies, who can bill taxpayers for their planning and preparation, media organizations are market driven. Seldom if ever do media organizaitons invest in table-top exercises to learn how they might better react in the face of a unique emergency. Don't expect fashion-and-sports oriented graduates of today's journalism schools to have the bright idea that a 9-point earthquake in a coastal region is likely to cause tsunamis. Today's class of smiling news anchor faces is better at placing blame after fault occurs than at anticipating outcomes as they occur. Today's networks realize more profit from prime-time punditry criticizing public officials than they do from public service that could resolve problems before they occur. A particularly keen reporter or correspondent might anticipate secondary effects of an event, but only methodical planning can put in place systems that will consistently anticipate those effects.

If I had worked for CNN on the story, I would like to think that I would have called the center for more info, but chances are a senior producer would have told me instead to hurry up and get some live pictures from the earthquake. I agree with Peggy that some calls from the tsunami warning center to CNN might have saved lives.


I just would like to say, that this that has happened in Asia was a catastrophe that could have been helped if there had been a system to alert, and we have the same problem in the Atlantic, as many of you know, there is a very inestable volcano in La Palma, that may provoque a mega-tsunami from any moment now to a few hundreds of years and there is nothing we can do about it at the moment. I live in the island next to it, Tenerife which has more that half million habitants and by now the only way is coping with what it comes, as technology is not developped well enough yet and the evacuation of so many people would be impossible in such a short time (the wave would take a few hours to reach the states, but it would be here withing a few minutes), we just can hope that happens in time enough to have the necesary equipment to prevent mayor losses. So letŽs encourage the governments to research more about it.


I think it is a timely reminder to world governments to sit up and take notice of the harm potential of these events and spend time and money on doing something useful- like spending a few million on early warning systems and - (this is just a dream) - pull the troops out of Iraq and send them to Asia where they can do some good - how on earth can governments spend billions on wars when there is so much humanitarian need in the world - I hope this might make people of the world stop and think !!! not just us ordinary guys but world leaders.
Cumbre Veiaja in the Canaries is a potential hazard and should be monitored more closely- there have been warnings in the past we have lots of information - but as mentioned by an earlier poster - we are great at colecting info - but lousy at acting on it - I cannot believe in ths era of men on the moon the authorities couldnt have done more to warn people this wave was on its way- if they spent more time watching the world for potential harm from natural disasters rather than squabbling over countries where there is Oil- there could be some good done in this world instead of all this sickening greed we see.
I hope the world wakes up to the potential of cumbre veiaja!! or we are all at risk.

Some of the suggestions on mass communication system to affected areas - by centralised agencies is really good. But we should not forget that most of the affected persons along the coastline are uneducated & moreover have no ready access to either landline telephones, mobiles and internet. As such, only an audio-visual system (radio, TV, etc) is likely to be of any avail, if at all an extensive reach is required. As rightly pointed out, the authenticity of communicating such warnings over mass media, as well as the time taken before such a message is actually issued out needs to be put in place by the respective disaster management team of Govt. Unless this is done, we shall continue doing fire-fighting, rather than establishing preventive measures.


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on December 28, 2004 9:50 PM.

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