Mapping disaster research

Posted by Rohan Samarajiva on February 14, 2006  /  5 Comments


What I learned during my visits to the Civil Defense Center and the Tsunami Museum in Hilo and the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Ewa Beach in Hawai’i last January greatly contributed to the disaster communication research program undertaken by LIRNEasia in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Therefore, I welcomed the opportunity to step back and reflect on the research program a year later, also in Hawai’i.

The occasion was a workshop funded by the National Science Foundation of the US. It was organized by Louise Comfort, Daniel Mosse and Taieb Znati, all at the U of Pittsburgh. Louise is from Public Policy and has been working on disasters for a long time. Daniel and Taieb are in computer science and new to the field. I really liked Daniel’s fixation on time lines. That is critical to the whole enterprise of warning.

I had some reservations when I first received the invitation, but was persuaded to attend. All I knew about sensor-based networks was what I learned from Tilak Illangasekera and Anura Jayasumana in the course of our work on early warning systems for dam-based hazards ( I had been thinking about using advanced sensors and telemetry for hazard detection for a long time. The disasters and ICTs workshop I organized while at the Arthur C. Clarke Centre back in 1986 had this subject on the agenda; and Tilak and Anura responded to a specific request to talk about “electronic dust” in relation to dam safety. But still, that did not qualify me as an expert on the subject.

The agenda explained the rationale: the organizers began the workshop with presentations on the current state of tsunami warning in Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka and India followed by presentations on the design of new systems, if any, in each of the four countries. They had a deputy minister from Indonesia and the head of the Meteorology Department in Thailand. From India and Sri Lanka, they had invited researchers. The idea was to get a good sense of the “demand” side and then develop creative ideas to “supply” the solutions.

In order to do justice to the first presentation I analyzed the Sri Lanka Disaster Management Act (No. 13 of 2005) and the Disaster Management Roadmap published in December 2005 by the Disaster Management Center, created under that Act. Avoiding slipping into the conventional government mode of talking about the future, I analyzed the actual experiences of with tsunami warning in Sri Lanka (December 26th, 2004; the fiasco of the non-functioning e-mail addresses and fax numbers of February 27th, 2005; and the Nias Great Earthquake and the false warning of March 28th, 2005).

The LK presentation was different from the others, because it said pretty much nothing about hazard detection and monitoring, other than to identify it as a necessary condition that LK hoped would be satisfied by international and regional action. This was not simply because of the focus on public warning in our own research; it was because LK is the only country among the four to not have an active program in developing a tsunami hazard detection capability. Shifting the emphasis from tsunami hazard detection to public warning was part of the thrust of LIRNEasia’s and Vanguard Foundation’s work in the aftermath of the tsunami (e.g.,

Listening to the grandiose plans for placing large numbers of very expensive deep-sea sensor devices in Indonesia and the unrealistic deadlines of the peculiar India-only tsunami detection system, I was happy that my government had got it right at least once. In none of the other presentations did I hear what I wanted to hear: systematic analyses of how the systems worked (especially when specific actions were taken) in the “natural experiments” of December 26th, 2004 and March 28th, 2005.

I also presented the elements of the HazInfo Project we’re doing with Sarvodaya.

These sessions were followed by some excellent presentations on the state of tsunami detection: Walter Mooney of the US Geological Survey and Rhett Butler from Global Seismic Network talked about the worldwide network of seismometers, using pictures of the Pallekale site in their presentation. The importance of the Pallekale equipment for the Indian Ocean detection system was clearly evident. The Indian bureaucracy paranoidly continues to resist sharing seismic information, making the entire region a black hole, if not for PALK, as the Pallekale unit is fondly known. The Chinese are only slightly less paranoid, imposing a 100-minute delay on their data (thereby ruling that area out as a serious source of seismic information). Isn’t it ironic that the two most populous nations in the world take positions inimical to the preservation of human life in the name of national security?

Two thirds of the earth’s surface is covered by water, but except for one cable-based ocean-floor system near Hawai’i, all the other seismic sensors are land-based. Professor Kanamori from CalTech made a fascinating presentation on the potential of an alternative method of identifying tsunamis using GPS data to do a quick and dirty calculation of lateral displacements of land masses caused by really big earthquakes. Chip McCreery, the Director of the PTWC, talked about how they were planning to use a new tool based on the sophisticated model that gave us that powerful picture of the 2004 tsunami a few days later. Beautiful results from complicated models weeks later are nice, but do not save lives. What Chip described was a simple interface where the PTWC scientists would make some simple entries and the model would spit out information that was practically usable in identifying tsunami risk.

So it was clear that there is plenty of work to be done in improving tsunami detection; in reducing the false warning rate which stands at 75% in the Pacific Basin. Advanced sensor networks, including the motes that are “sown,” can play a very useful role. The NSF was not throwing its money down a drain. We, the people dealing with the gritty reality of public warning and evacuation, could easily tell them how important it was to get the false warning rate down. The hard scientists could get to work on improving the predictability of tsunamis, and of speeding up the communication of the hazard information to the national warning centers.

The tsunami is a peculiar beast. A cyclone/typhoon/hurricane can be predicted days in advance; at the other extreme, there will be a few minutes of unreliable warning on an earthquake, at most. Tsunamis sit in the middle of this continuum. Advance warning of around one hour is feasible for a teletsunami of the type that hit Sri Lanka in 2004. For Kenya and Tanzania, the period can be as high as 8-10 hours. But the same tsunami hit Banda Aceh in twenty minutes, making advance warning difficult to impossible. What was a teletsunami for us was a local tsunami for Banda Aceh.

Sometime early in the discussion this distinction between short-fuse and long-fuse disasters came up. Unfortunately, it did not get picked up as the central organizing theme for the work of the group, despite Daniel’s fixation on time.

In the case of long-fuse disasters, the hazard detection and monitoring system is (and should be) separable from the warning system. They have different qualities. In the case of short-fuse disasters, the two systems have to be unified. This was the distinction we made in the case of NEWS:SL (teletsunami; long-fuse) and the dam hazards project (short-fuse).

In the case of local tsunamis, the prevailing wisdom is “your feet are your signal; run for high ground.” Is it possible for advanced sensor networks to reduce the uncertainty in this situation? I think yes. This is a good case for long-term fundamental research funded by the NSF.

On the public warning side, there is no need for fundamental research at present. Just hard-nosed implementation will do. As we get this piece done, it’s possible that opportunities for fundamental research will appear. But they were not manifest at the meeting in Maui. All we had was a restatement of what everyone in disaster management had known for years. The best practices section of our NEWS:SL report sets out the principles.

But this is not to say that the public warning side will not benefit from fundamental research on the hazard detection and monitoring side. Improvements there will reduce the false warning rate and will also give the public-warning people more time to act.

But, in my view, there is no gain from simply mashing together the hazard detection and public warning systems for teletsunamis. These systems have different qualities and we will save more lives (this is the end objective, we must keep in mind) by improving their performance as separate systems. Unfortunately, the design of the second day’s deliberations did not allow this kind of discussion. The mashing together was a fait accompli.

So, not optimal in terms of intellectual output, but very good in terms of networking and finding out the state of the art on the hazard detection and monitoring side. I hope something good will come of all this.

The conference website is here


  1. Information on the Japanese sponsored Eastern Indian Ocean (upto Sri Lanka) tusnami detection system is at

  2. Hi Rohan,
    I was delighted to find — and read — your comments on the Maui Workshop. In fact, there are two workshops planned. The purpose of the first, as you described, was to collect data on the existing state of tsunami detection and preparedness in the four South Asian nations. The second workshop, to be held in June, will address the technical questions you are seeking to answer.

    A summary of the February workshop will be posted soon on the workshop website.


  3. A prepub version of the analysis of the Sri Lanka Disaster Management Act is available here: Work with the Disaster Act or fix its flaws?

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