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Disagreeing with Smith Dharmasaroja: Importance of focusing on the most important issue

Smith Dharmasaroja is a hero of mine. Disagreeing with a hero does not come easy. But he is wrong to give equal or greater weight to national tsunami detection and monitoring systems than to communication of last-mile warning. It may be that the fault lies in the reporter in ordering the comments, but it does appear that Mr Smith believes that a national tsunami detection and monitoring system is most important to Thailand. It is not. More important is to have a working last-mile warning system.

But alongside the remembrance events, a report by the German news agency dpa caused concern, when respected meteorologist Smith Dharmasaroja warned that the tsunami warning system was essentially broken, and Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra agreed that disaster prevention needed a lot of work.

Another tsunami would be hard to detect in southern Thailand now, said Mr Smith.

“There was a regional tsunami warning system in place six years ago but now it doesn’t work,” dpa quoted Mr Smith, who warned the government about the risk of a tsunami striking the country years before.

Mr Smith, who was appointed chairman of the National Disaster Warning Administration in 2005 and assigned to put a warning system in place, said the system was no longer functioning properly. Warning buoys placed off Phuket in 2005 have not functioned reliably from a lack of replacement parts, he said.

“Even some of the warning towers don’t work,” said Mr Smith, who was attending a memorial service in Phuket when he talked to the dpa reporter.

“Just (Sunday) big waves hit the eastern coast of Thailand, flooding many houses, and there were no warnings of that storm,” Mr Smith said.

The cause of a tsunami is an earthquake or an underwater landslide. Earthquakes cause most tsunamis, though the pile of silt accumulated in the Bay of Bengal from the Ganga is a cause for concern. The science of detecting an underwater landslide/mudslide is not fully developed, so let us leave that aside for now. The science of detecting earthquakes as they occur (not predicting them) and calculating their tsunamigenic potential has advanced greatly since 2004.

In the Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami earlier this year, both the Japanese and the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center (PTWC) broke their previous best records. The distance between Japan and Hawai’i did not matter.

1. PTWC issued its preliminary earthquake message 4min 8s after origin (when the Earthquake started). This had a magnitude of 7.5.

2. Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA) issued two warning bulletins, one in its capacity as the local tsunami warning center for Japan, and another in its capacity as the NWPTAC (Northwest Pacific Tsunami Advisory Center). The warning JMA issued as the NWPTAC was sent about 9mins after origin. By international agreement, since the earthquake fell in the NWPTAC’s area of responsibility PTWC waited until JMA issued the bulletin and used JMA’s parameters in its own bulletin to avoid confusion (at least for the first bulletin).

3. JMA, in its capacity as the national warning agency issued the warning in 4 minutes, at most, 8 seconds ahead of PTWC.

4. A better indication of how far tsunami detection and monitoring has come since 2004 is indicated by PTWC’s response to the Mentawai earthquake on Oct 25, 2010. PTWC issued a local watch/warning for Sumatra 6m 35s after the earthquake. BMG (Indonesia’s national warning agency) also issued a warning about 5m 30s after origin.

Other than for the “comfort” factor of having your own national capability, there is no real scientific rationale for national centers. All resources should be concentrated in two or three regional centers. We should focus our efforts on national systems for converting regional alerts into authoritative warnings and to ensure that the warnings actually reach the people in the path of the tsunami.

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