April 11, 2012

Indian Ocean Earthquake and the Importance of Tsunami Early Warning Systems

A magnitude 8.6 earthquake struck off the coast of Indonesia’s Sumatra Island today prompting the governments of India, Indonesia and Thailand to issue tsunami warnings for the region. The earthquake revived memories of the devastating magnitude 9.1 earthquake the struck the Indian Ocean in December 2004, killing an estimated 250,000 across the region.

Early reports suggested that the initial earthquake’s depth and horizontal motion lessened the likelihood of a major tsunami. However, strong aftershocks continue to stir concerns about a tsunami forming in the Indian Ocean. At 11:43 a.m. GMT (7:43 a.m. EST), a magnitude 8.3 aftershock struck the region, prompting NOAA’s Pacific Tsunami Warning Center to issue a tsunami watch for the Indian Ocean. According to the warning, “Sea level readings indicate a tsunami was generated. It may already have been destructive along some coasts.” However, there are no reports of a major wave formation or tsunami event at the time of this writing.

Today’s Indian Ocean earthquake is a reminder of the importance of NOAA’s tsunami early warning systems, which are largely unrecognized national security assets. The constellation of buoys around the Pacific Rim and in the Indian Ocean measure changes in wave height that alert experts in Hawaii and Alaska about potential tsunamis forming in the wake of major earthquakes. The information is critical to predicting the size of tsunamis and forewarning coastal communities about when the waves may strike land. The system may seem unremarkable, but it is a critical capability that bolsters coastal states’ resiliency to potentially devastating tsunamis, giving communities ringing the coast time to evacuate and hopefully dampening the impact of these catastrophic events, which can have destabilizing knock-on effects. Despite the tragic loss of life, the tsunami early warning system proved critical in warning Japanese residents after last March’s magnitude 9.0 earthquake and tsunami disasters, giving some residents time to evacuate. They also warned U.S. West Coast residents to evacuate vulnerable waterfront property.

This national security asset is in danger of losing its effectiveness due to budget constraints, which would cut about $4.6 million dollars from NOAA’s tsunami early warning programs. In particular, NOAA’s Fiscal Year 2013 budget reflects the agency’s efforts to save $1 million by increasing the time between scheduled maintenance of the buoys that measure the changes in wave height. According to NOAA’s budget overview:

The increase in the interval between scheduled maintenance calls may reduce buoy data availability from a targeted performance from 80 percent to approximately 72 percent. The lower data availability of the DART network will not impact the issue of warnings; however, without these data, warnings may extend to a larger area than necessary and for a longer time.

Experts argue that NOAA’s proposed cuts could force the United States and the countries that rely on the tsunami early warning network to assume a lot of risk in the future. “Given how little money it is, and the concerns about human life, this is a poor place to cut,” said John Orcutt, a professor of geophysics at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and chair of a 2011 National Academies Study on tsunami warning and preparedness. “It’s just like large earthquakes. The half-life of attention is measured in shorter and shorter periods of time. Our memory isn’t very long,” Orcutt told the San Jose Mercury News in March.

The changing geostrategic landscape is likely to make NOAA’s tsunami early warning network more important in the future. In particular, demographic shifts in Asia that are sending more and more people to crowded coastal cities along the earthquake-prone Pacific Rim may mean that more people are vulnerable to potential tsunamis. U.S. policymakers should be exploring opportunities to enhance its tsunami early warning system, including potentially by sharing responsibility and costs with international partners. These opportunities will not only help maximize existing budgets but would enhance these national security assets, perhaps even leading to improvements in warning time, giving coastal communities more time to evacuate and reducing the impact of these catastrophic events. This could pay significant dividends for stability and security by decreasing the size of the humanitarian assistance and disaster relief missions that the U.S. military and others may be called in to support.