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Early Warning System

Suraya and I visit Malaysia (her home country) every other year, usually at Christmas time. Two years ago today we were on the island of Langkawi, which is on the border of Thailand and Malaysia. Langkawi has sustained tremendous damage in the wake of the tsunamis; the final death toll is not yet known. If the earthquake had occured two years to the day earlier than it did, we would almost certainly have been on the beach when the tsunami hit. Or, for that matter, if our travel plans this year had been more in line with our normal preferences, we would have been on the beach in Penang or Langkawi or Phuket yesterday when the waves hit. (This year there were several family events taking place right around Christmas that made it impossible for us to schedule any beach time.)

One thing might have stopped us from doing so. We were having a late breakfast and watching CNN yesterday morning when the news broke about the earthquake. As I mentioned in my previous entry, I thought the fact that the earthquake occured on the far side of Sumatra from where we were would prevent Malaysia from having to worry about tidal waves. But I think that had I actually been on the coast, I would have suggested staying well away from the water...just in case. The CNN report mentioned the possibility of tsunamis, but there wasn't any warning to stay out of the water. There was no sense of urgency, at least not in the initial report I saw. It wasn't like, say, a tornado warning.

I can't help but think that a number of tourists in Phuket and the Maldives and other places watched that report before turning off the TV and heading to the beach. (The tsunami danger that was mentioned was only for India and Bangladesh.) If the report had been a very specific warning not to go near the water, I think some lives would have been saved.

There's been some discussion about how a tsunami warning system could be put in place for the countries impacted by this catastrophe. Some official government-sanctioned system would probably be a good idea, but failing that an educated media would certainly help. If CNN and the BBC had immediately begun broadcasting a warning that all coastal areas within the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea were in danger of imminent tidal waves, hundreds or even thousands of lives may have been saved. It's true that there are millions of poor in Indonesia and Bangladesh who live in remote areas and probably don't have access even to BBC radio, much less CNN. But local broadcasters would have quickly picked up the news, as would law enforcement and other agencies. Word of mouth could have accomplished quite a bit.

Memetics is still a new field; we have a lot to learn about how ideas are propagated and how they spread. But can anybody doubt that an unambiguous warning of danger would have spread much more quickly and would have reached many more people (especially if repeated continuously throughout the two hours) than a note to the effect that hmmm, there might be danger? It's all about urgency. I'm not trying to be critical of the media. As others have pointed out, this is such a rare thing to have happened it's no wonder it caught everyone off guard. Still, in light of this catastrophe, a very positive step for media organizations to take would be to recognize the role they can play in mitigating this kind of disaster in the future.

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» http://www.ubilibertas.com/archives/000331.php from Ubi Libertas
The tidal wave/earthquake tragedy in southeast Asia is a multi-dimensional story that will (and should) influence lives around the world far into the new year. Phil at The Speculist reflects on the costs of not having a warning of imminent... [Read More]

» Tsunami Early Warnings, Flamers and the WebLogs.com shutdown from Alex Jacobson
Phil Bowermaster notes If CNN and the BBC had immediately begun broadcasting a warning that all coastal areas within the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea were in danger of imminent tidal waves, hundreds or even thousands of lives may have been saved. ... [Read More]

» Asian Tsunami Death Toll Hits 23,000 from TalkLeft: The Politics of Crime
Update: The Command Post has a comprehensive list of relief efforts accepting contributions. This is just unfathomable...23,000 people dead in a natural disaster that rippled like a wave from country to country in the Eastern hemisphere. I hadn't plann... [Read More]

» Tsunami thoughts from Cronaca
I've been mulling over this piece over the last several days:We were having a late breakfast and watching CNN yesterday... [Read More]

» Tsunami Detection from coolass gadgets
Tsunami detectors are available, each cost about $250,000 to build and maintain. The question remains though, even if these were in place in the Indian Ocean, would an early warning system have helped the vast majority of victims in the wave's path? ... [Read More]

Comments

May I be so cynical and ugly as to suggest that perhaps the media would not want to be involved in *preventing* tragedy, as they are only "observers" and shouldn't "influence" the course of history? They don't appear to want to prevent assassinations in the streets of Baghdad either, for the sake of the all-important Story. The Story is paramount. The human beings involved are important only as components of the story. Save those humans from tragedy and death, and you short-circuit your own Story.

KD

Unfortunately, you can't be too cynical, especially where the media are concerned. However, I think that they really had no idea what was coming. If they had known, they would have had camera crews standing by well above several beaches in the region and captured the event live. As it is, all the video I've seen came from amateurs with camcorders.

I recall reading that there are different types of quakes, and a quake resulting in horizontal slippage would not cause a tsunami. Tsunami are very rare in the Indian ocean basin, perhaps for this reason; this particular quake happened to be at a thrust fault, did cause vertical motion, and thus did cause a tsunami.

Would it be better to issue warnings which might be false, only to have the jaded public ignore the real threat when it finally comes?  I think that is a very good question.  Far better to have the sensors to know what's coming, instead of having to guess.

Most news organizations wouldn't take the risk of such a warning on their own. There could be a huge price tag associated with predicting incorrectly a natural disaster. However, given the lack of media coverage, it's pretty clear that they simply didn't understand what could happen here.

E-P:

I recall reading that there are different types of quakes, and a quake resulting in horizontal slippage would not cause a tsunami. Tsunami are very rare in the Indian ocean basin, perhaps for this reason; this particular quake happened to be at a thrust fault, did cause vertical motion, and thus did cause a tsunami.

As I understand it, you are correct. The Pacific Ocean is ringed by thrust faults while western Indonesia is the only place with significant thrust faults in the Indian Ocean. What's interesting here is that apparently the average height of such a wave in the begining (before it loses energy) is roughly equal to the amount of vertical displacement along the fault. So the tsusamis from earthquakes tend to be limited in vertical height. Landslides, volcanos, and meteor strikes can generate larger tsusamis.

I recall glancing at simulations (I don't know of good links for them) of the wave motion. I gather that the recent tsusamis were actually generated along a north-south line (ie, along the fault) rather than a point source. That would help to explain how they retained so much power when they hit Sri Lanka and beyond.

A point source like what I mentioned above might generate much larger waves, but these waves would probably attenuate more rapidly with distance.

I think two things that can be added here is that as a society, we're pretty bad at preparing for risks that are rare yet very harmful, but we are pretty good at cleaning up after disaster has occured.

This probably is because every society has had to evolve in the presence of disasters that couldn't be predicted. Any society that couldn't cope would eventually run into a large enough disaster and fall apart. While disaster prediction is less useful. If your society can ultimately recover from any disaster, then there's less need to know when the disaster will occur.

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