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Improved tsunami alert system through international partnerships

Early detection of a tsunami can greatly reduce loss of life. © Shutterstock: Zacarias Pereira da Mata
Early detection of a tsunami can greatly reduce loss of life. © Shutterstock: Zacarias Pereira da Mata

Tsunamis are not very frequent events, but they can have a terrible impact on human life and on the economy of a country. They occur as a result of earthquakes, usually at the bottom of the sea, but at present such earthquakes cannot be foreseen.

Quick responses are therefore vital. ‘Tsunamis travel very quickly and occur relatively near the shore. It may be only a matter of 15-20 minutes after the earthquake that the wave hits the shore,’ said José-Fernando Esteban, Head of Innovation at Atos Origin Spain.

Early detection can greatly reduce loss of life. ‘Analysis must take no longer than 10 minutes in order to give the authorities enough time to react and take urgent measures; every minute is crucial,’ he added.

Esteban led an EU-funded international research project that developed the Distant Early Warning System (DEWS) which detects tsunamis as early as possible and allows emergency agencies to improve their responses.

The DEWS has already been installed in Indonesia and other versions of the system have been developed for use in the Mediterranean region. The system positions sensors at sea and on the coast to pick up earthquakes, to determine the size of the tsunami waves that they are likely to produce and where they will strike on the coastline. DEWS processes this data and provides authorities with all the relevant information needed for making a decision on the type of public warning messages that are required.

‘Analysis must take no longer than 10 minutes in order to give the authorities enough time to react and take urgent measures; every minute is crucial.’  

José-Fernando Esteban, Head of Innovation, Atos Origin Spain

Outside of the European Union, the project team’s partners were universities and governmental emergency agencies in New Zealand, Thailand, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka, as well as a leading Japanese agency focusing on geoscience and disaster prevention.

The Badan Meteorologi, Klimatologi, dan Geofisika (BMKG), the meteorological, climatological and geophysical agency of Indonesia, for example, supported the project in the development of guidelines and protocols, as well as in the evaluation of test beds. BMKG is in charge of the Indonesian DEWS and the organisational structure for disaster management coordination, as well as the National Earthquake Information Centre in Jakarta.

With the support of local staff, the DEWS was successfully installed at BMKG for evaluation and testing purposes in a closed and secure test environment.

The system not only provides faster warning, but it also gives authorities more information than has been available to date. ‘It is up to the authorities whether they decide to give a warning or not. But if they do decide in favour of a warning, the system can send immediate and personalised messages via SMS, email, voice messages over digital radio, and Facebook alerts. A wide range of communication means are available so that people can receive relevant and precise instructions, enabling them to react quickly,’ Esteban explained. 

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