SSA statement in support of improved earthquake and tsunami hazard mitigation
As compassionate people we are all saddened by the death and destruction caused by the Sumatra earthquake and resulting tsunami, but as seismologists we are additionally dismayed by the needless deaths since tsunami warning systems are scientifically and technologically possible. Indeed, many seismologists are reflecting on our discipline's responsibility for the extent of the human suffering. However, this reflection is rarely on what more we could have done scientifically and more often on our inability to translate and disseminate our knowledge in a way that might have made a difference. We have known that very large earthquakes are likely off the coast of Sumatra (as well as many other similar subduction zones). We have known that large, though comparatively rare, tsunamis have been generated there (as well as in most other ocean basins). We have the understanding and technology to rapidly issue warnings for tsunamis based on seismic and oceanographic data (and already issue warnings for the Pacific Basin). We publish scientific papers about our understanding of past events and the way geology works, often with an eye to anticipating future hazardous events. With all of this knowledge and technology how could this disaster have occurred? Unfortunately too often the connection between scientific understanding and practical, applied use of that understanding is lacking or comes too late.
There is no question we seismologists had a responsibility to publicize information about earthquakes and tsunami hazards in the Indian Ocean. Of course, there are hazard studies and maps about this area as well as many other places around the globe susceptible to the rare but very disastrous event. However, it may not be enough to publish technical papers and give presentations at professional meetings. Indeed, all of the major earth science funding agencies in the U.S. (NSF, U.S.GS, NOAA, NASA) have effective education and outreach programs. Educational books, pamphlets, posters and numerous web pages are produced and made available through many channels. Hazard information is available to almost any educated person seeking it. But, is this enough? Do we have more than research and educational responsibilities for hazard mitigation? We also have an advocacy responsibility. In addition to providing the results of our research by producing educational materials we must take these materials to those who can implement hazard reduction programs. We must be willing to go directly to governmental officials and, through the media, to the general public. We must not assume that responsible officials will find, read and act on our publications without us taking an active role. We must insist that the media responsibly report the important hazard mitigation information, not just the sensational aspects of potential disasters.
In the aftermath of this particular disaster the U.S. Government has recently proposed a new effort to improve tsunami warning systems, primarily for U.S. coastal areas. Discussions have reviewed what we could have done differently and what we can do to prevent a similar disaster in the future. The proposed effort combines the capabilities of two agencies to address the problem. The U.S. administration is proposing to commit $37.5M to improve tsunami warning systems in the Pacific, Atlantic and Caribbean. This is a good idea and will not only help protect U.S. coastal areas but help protect those of neighboring countries as well. However, this technological solution is just a small part of an effective real solution. There is a real danger that in our haste to fix what was broken in the recent disaster, we will fix the wrong thing for next time. Not only is this plan embarrassingly U.S.-centric it doesn't clearly address the whole problem, even for the U.S.. Detecting the earthquake and generating a warning is one thing but distributing the warning to all at-risk populations who have been educated about what to do is the bigger, more critical mitigation effort. Indeed, education alone, even without a warning system, could save large parts of a coastal population. Effective information could be as simple as, "If you feel a strong earthquake and/or see the ocean level behave in an unusual way, get off the coast as fast, far and high as possible." This plan should contain a much stronger educational component.
There are other dangers of the quick fix. While this is an opportunity to significantly improve mitigation efforts for the very serious yet rare tsunami hazard it is critical that the enormity of the recent tragic event not sidetrack us from other equally dangerous and more common hazards. Earthquakes without tsunamis are still the biggest geologic hazard worldwide. Unfortunately, even a moderate earthquake directly under one of the world's very large but unprepared cities will result in many more deaths than resulted from the Indian Ocean tsunami. The quick fix of a warning system is not applicable in such a case. However, improved hazard mapping and building construction practices would make a huge difference. Science and engineering show both where the hazards are high and propose techniques to significantly mitigate those hazards. U.S. science funding has made great advances; however, again putting the results into practical action is too often forgotten. As one example, while Congress authorized the Advanced National Seismic System to take a lead role in improving earthquake hazard mitigation it has only appropriated 10% of the needed and authorized amount of funding. It would be truly unfortunate if in our rush to fix the tsunami problem we forget about other, even more hazardous situations and wait until after one of those occurs to make serious advances. Similarly, while it is laudable that the U.S. is providing large sums of money and other resources, both public and private, for Indian Ocean tsunami relief efforts, it would be very unfortunate for these funds to be siphoned from programs designed to mitigate future disasters of a similar or greater magnitude. It is critical that we review all potential hazards for their likelihood and impact and distribute precious resources in a way that will maximize the chances of making a big difference next time.
—Stephen D. Malone, President