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Tsunami warning system taps into tech

Unesco develops a new system in the Indian Ocean designed to help people better respond to natural disasters.

U.N. organization Unesco has launched a new tsunami warning system for the Indian Ocean region in the hopes of helping people prepare for the next big one.

The system, which is now in place, is responsible for detecting the first signs of a tsunami and notifying populations that may be affected. Unesco's Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (Unesco-IOC) has set up 25 new seismographic stations throughout the Indian basin--adding to a pre-existing five--that aim to sense the earthquakes that trigger tsunamis by measuring indicators such as sea level, water pressure and seismic perturbations.

Three sensors, called Deep-ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunamis, also have been installed to contribute more seismographic data, Unesco said. If a tsunami has been detected, 26 new information centers will now be able to receive and relay warnings and evacuation instructions.

Unesco-IOC has spent the past year and a half building a warning system for countries in the Indian Ocean basin in the wake of the devastating effects of the December 2004 tsunami, which originated from an undersea earthquake off the coast of Sumatra.

"There was no system operating" at the time of the 2004 tsunami, explained Patricio Bernal, executive secretary of Unesco-IOC. "There was not any way of knowing if any earthquake in the Indian Ocean region would have caused a tsunami." This is a large part of why the 2004 tsunami killed as many people as it did--about 200,000, according to the United Nations Office of the Special Envoy for Tsunami Recovery.

However, while progress on the system is on schedule as planned, Bernal emphasized that one of the biggest hurdles will be ensuring its functionality in the case of a real emergency, when some communications networks may become swamped and others may have shut down entirely. "The challenge is not the seismograph, but its reliable, real-time information link," he said.

Thanks to real-time communications tools such as SMS (Short Message Service), what used to take hours can now take seconds, but there is still the possibility that the technology could become oversaturated. Preparedness, too, is vital, Bernal said. He emphasized the need for better maps and evacuation plans, particularly for hospitals and schools.

He stressed that without international collaboration, developing the new system would not have been possible. "This is an effort by all the countries in the area, and all of them have been cooperating," he said.

Unesco-IOC was also responsible for organizing the Pacific Tsunami Warning System in the 1960s. Its headquarters are located on Ewa Beach in Hawaii. The facility was established in 1949, following the 1946 earthquake off the Aleutian Islands that resulted in more than 150 tsunami-related deaths throughout the Pacific. Unesco-IOC has also planned warning systems for the Northeast Atlantic, Caribbean and Mediterranean.