Warnings are Futile if People Don't Respond
At the time, the PTWC was the only agency to detect that tragic event, but its warnings to governments surrounding the Indian Ocean went mostly ignored, with deadly results. Now, a warning system is in place, and for the moment, it's all run by the U.S. National Weather Service on behalf of the United Nations. The only other visible sign of this global data network is something you see only if you know what to look for. Back in the late 1990s, when I first started working with the University of Hawaii's Advanced Network Computing Lab to test enterprise-class products for the long-departed CommunicationsWeek, where I was the reviews editor, I happened to be driving along the north shore of O'ahu when I spotted some tall masts topped with sirens. I asked my friend and colleague Brian Chee who created the lab what those might be. "They're the tsunami-warning sirens," he told me.Unfortunately, those sirens aren't everywhere in vulnerable areas. However the data network operated by the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center is nearly everywhere, and it has the ability to provide timely warnings, which, if heeded, can save the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. But, sadly, if they're ignored as they were in 2004, those same numbers can be lost. In the United States where warnings are usually taken seriously, the March 11, 2011, earthquake in Japan and the subsequent tsunami were taken seriously, and people were evacuated. But a global data network can do only so much. As critical as this infrastructure is, it only works when it's used. The good news is that most governments in the Pacific and in the Indian Ocean now take the threat seriously, they have plans in place to evacuate residents in affected areas, and they probably won't be struck by the unimaginable loss of life that happened in 2004. But there's another tsunami warning area that gets little attention. It monitors the North Atlantic, the Mediterranean and the seas connected to them. The Atlantic Ocean is also capable of generating tsunamis as the Atlantic Ocean spreads along the mid-Atlantic ridge. Imagine a 36-foot-high tsunami coming ashore in Manhattan, and then ask yourself where the warning system is and where you'd go to evacuate.
On March 11, those sirens began sounding hourly, warning residents of low-lying areas throughout Hawaii to seek higher ground. The sirens were triggered as the last stage of the tsunami-warning data network. You might consider that these are the human interface of this vast global network that starts with reports of earthquakes and continues with measurements of ocean waves by a string of sensors spanning thousands of miles of open ocean.