Science Details Broad Effort to Improve Tsunami Warnings
Banda Aceh Shore in Indonesia (before Tsunami). Imagery collected 2004 June 23, courtesy DigitalGlobe.
Banda Aceh Shore in Indonesia. Imagery collected 2004 December 28, courtesy DigitalGlobe.
Haunted by the failure to recognize that the massive 26 December earthquake would generate a deadly tsunami, Asian scientists and their counterparts around the world are mounting research campaigns designed to limit the toll in future disasters.
A news report in the 7 January issue of the journal Science details projects launched in the aftermath of the disaster that will allow researchers to model how tsunamis rise after earthquakes and to understand patterns of flooding when they hit land. Such efforts would be crucial to developing a tsunami warning system for the shores of the Indian Ocean, experts told Science reporters Yudhijit Bhattacharjee and Pallava Bagla.
The rare Indian Ocean tsunami was generated by a 9.0 earthquake off the coast of Sumatra, and slammed into shoreline communities from Indonesia all the way west to Somalia. It left more than 150,000 dead, tens of thousands injured, and billions of dollars in property damage.
Because ocean-floor earthquakes don't always generate tsunamis, and because only a handful of tsunamis have been recorded in the Indian Ocean, a "near-total ignorance" prevented scientists and public officials in some of the affected countries of issuing warnings after the quake, Science reported.
"We'd never experienced anything like this before," said Rajender Chadha, a seismologist at the National Geophysical Research Institute in the south Indian city of Hyderabad. "It took us completely by surprise, and it was a terrible feeling."
Another expert told Science: "It was a failure of the entire hazards mitigation community."
Others, however, said that even if scientists had known that the quake would spawn a huge tsunami, they would have had few options for response because there is little understanding about how the waves travel and where they would strike.
Science news stories are typically available only to subscribers, but online coverage of the disaster is being made freely available as a public service. Science is published by AAAS.
Edward W. Lempinen
6 January 2005