Tsunamis Need Not Take Lives

A giant offshore earthquake sent killer waves around southern Asia last Sunday. They left a death toll in the tens of thousands from Sri Lanka to Thailand. Almost all of the people who were killed had no warning of these tsunamis as they made massive and speedy arrivals from off the coast of Sumatra.

Even if all the shoreline residents had been alerted, they might not have been prepared. That lack of warning and preparedness, however, isn't true in every country. Japan and the United States are world leaders in using ocean bed sensors to try and forecast tsunamis. They have slowly developed public training for evacuations, special construction codes for coastal buildings, and shoreline embankments to lessen the impact of these waves.

Such measures are still far from perfect. And Hollywood's summer catastrophe movie, "The Day After Tomorrow," about a giant Atlantic storm surge striking Manhattan, is an overwrought reminder of what such a watery tragedy can bring.

Despite more and more seabed sensors being placed around the Pacific's "ring of fire" volcanic and earthquake zone, tsunami predictions are still a budding science. Hawaii, which saw a 1946 tsunami kill 159 people on the islands, has had a number of false alarms about pending tsunamis. These evacuations cost millions in lost productivity. And the state needs to improve its tsunami-emergency drills for residents.

Still, a milestone was crossed last year when one prediction proved accurate. In October, the National Data Buoy Center, an arm of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, tracked a wave that arose from a 7.5 magnitude quake off the Aleutian Islands. At first a warning was given to Hawaii, but then canceled. The islands only saw a relatively small wave.

Although more "tsunami-meters" are needed, one limiting factor is the lack of accurate topographical maps of ocean and coastal bottoms. Much of the size, direction and speed of a wave is determined by the contours of the seabed. More ocean-bed data collection is needed to make predictions more accurate. Also needed in every coastal nation are stronger buildings for those living less than 50 feet above sea level and within one mile of a shoreline.

The 20th century saw some 70,000 people killed by tsunamis. This century need not see the same toll.

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