March 24, 2011

Obama’s Reorg: Keep It or Cut It? Part III

If there is one thing we should be able to agree on this week, it’s that tsunami early warning systems are a good investment. A few weeks back we began examining how the pending federal belt-tightening may affect how the government addresses natural security concerns. In earlier rounds of “Keep It or Cut It?” we suggested cutting the climate change czar position and keeping NASA's Applied Sciences division. As we prepare for tonight's "One Night For Nippon" fundraiser that CNAS is cosponsoring, we reflect back on the tsunami, and in particular the tsunami early warning systems that we now have.

While many of these systems involve valuable international cooperation, we in the United States have a few tools all our own.DART Most important in the most recent tsunami scare, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) operates a series of buoys - the Deep-ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunamis, or DART system - designed to detect signs of potential tsunamis and relay that information. 

The DART system allowed us to issue tsunami early warnings when we needed them this month. These systems save lives, plain and simple. In the days after the Japan earthquake the San Francisco Chronicle reported that within 12 minutes officials could issue a tsunami warning. By comparison, before the DART network in the Pacific became as robust as it is today, the effectiveness was dramatically worse:

The key to the system was the installation over the past seven years of dozens of sensor buoys throughout the Pacific. There were only six buoys, in the Deep-ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunamis, or DART, when tsunamis spread throughout the Indian Ocean in December 2004, killing more than 200,000 people. In most cases, there was no warning at all, a fact that was tragically clear in videotapes showing bathers flocking to the shoreline or standing around gawking as the killer waves rolled ashore.

And they appear to be on the chopping block. The National Weather Service, DART’s overseeing office, may see cuts of up to 28%. US News & World Report did some of the most in-depth reporting on what proposed budget cuts would mean:

The U.S. government has two Tsunami Warning Centers, one in Hawaii and one in Alaska. According to a preliminary (since no final decisions can be made until a final funding bill is passed) draft budget analysis by NOAA, the agency would try to plan the furloughs so that at least one of the warning center was open and fully staffed at any given time. The “risk to forecasts would increase,” however, because the stations back each other up, so having one closed would magnify the effect of an error on the part of the other.

The funding cut would also put off needed maintenance and repair to the hardware side of tsunami detection. The government has 39 Deep-Ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunamis, or DART, buoys deployed, mostly in the Pacific Ocean. A half-dozen of those buoys aren’t currently operational and require repairs—which would likely not take place under the contemplated funding cuts. Further, the functioning systems would get maintenance on an "emergency-only" basis, meaning more stuff could break down. “This will not impact the issuance of tsunami warnings,” according to the analysis, “but will degrade the quality of warnings.”

My recommendation is that the DART system should be in the “Keep It” category. Of course we have to balance these capabilities with other priorities, but it’s worth Congress and the administration considering whether maintaining these systems may just be worth it.

Photo Courtesy of NOAA.