It is now estimated that more than 150,000 people were killed in the Dec. 26 South Asian tsunami, and the numbers are still rising. Though nothing can stop such a natural disaster, there is substantial evidence that tens of thousands of lives could have been spared had a tsunami warning system been in place.

“No one told us about the tsunami,” said Maldivian Foreign Minister Fathulla Jameel, according to the Bahrain-based Gulf Daily News. “We were hit one-and-a-half hours after Sri Lanka. No one alerted us. Sri Lanka itself was hit several hours after the earthquake and I presume no one told them either.”

The deadly tsunami was sparked when shifting tectonic plates beneath the ocean floor off the coast of Indonesia caused an earthquake measuring 9 on the Richter scale. According the U.S. Geological Survey, that force is equivalent to 23,000 Hiroshima-style atomic bombs.

The scientific journal Nature observed that “the strength of the event depends on the displacement of the ocean floor, not the strength of the earthquake.” Thus, to accurately predict a tsunami, sensitive devices in the ocean must measure small changes in the sea’s level and water pressure. No such devices were in place in the Indian Ocean.

A warning system for the Pacific, administered by the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center (PTWC) has been in place since the 1960s and has recently been upgraded. However, the nations protected by this warning system are entirely in the Pacific, and are mainly U.S. allies.

Scientists in the Pacific region knew about the Dec. 26 earthquake within minutes.

PTWC scientists thought an Indian Ocean tsunami was possible, but had no way of knowing for sure, since the information-gathering devices used in the Pacific do not exist in the Indian Ocean. They sent a bulletin to their membership list, noting only that no tsunami was expected in the Pacific.

The tsunami was detected only after it had already begun producing death and destruction. The British Guardian newspaper said the sole Indian Ocean location to receive sufficient warning was the U.S. military base on Diego Garcia, located on British-owned islands, which received about half an hour advance warning — well after the tsunami had struck Indonesia. Even the islands’ British occupants only learned of the information via the Internet and received no official warning.

Scientists at the PTWC and elsewhere scrambled to warn nations of the tsunami when they finally realized its catastrophic threat. Because the information came so late and no appropriate warning system was in place, nothing was done to warn coast-dwelling residents, leading to the deaths of tens of thousands of people.

World powers, including the U.S., now advocate that a tsunami warning system be set up in the Indian Ocean region. However, many observers say it is unforgivable that such a system did not exist beforehand. According to Nature, though “tsunami researchers had expressed some concern about the risk for such an event, little had been done to plan for it.” The problem, the article stated, was that it was nearly impossible to raise money for such a system.

Leon Fuerth, Vice President Al Gore’s security adviser, wrote in a New York Times op-ed piece about efforts during the Clinton administration to develop the Global Disaster Information Center (GDIC), an Internet-based system to help nations prepare better for disasters. He said one component would probably have led to development of sensors on the Indian Ocean floor. The Republican-controlled Congress wiped out the program’s active components as “too costly.” Today the GDIC still survives, according to Fuerth, as a web site discussion forum.

“It is painful to think of what might have been if, seven years ago, Congress had strongly supported our plan for the network,” Fuerth said. “By the time the tsunami arrived, tens of thousands of people might have been able to flee to higher ground.”

dmargolis@cpusa.org

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