Learning from the Pacific Rim
an exclusive telephone interview from Ottawa, he said nothing would give him
greater satisfaction than helping India in setting up a system that would warn
of an impending disaster.
am keen on investing my time and expertise if the Indian government wants my
service and will not charge any consultation or professional fees in helping my
motherland at this desperate need of the hour,” he said in a choked voice,
still unable to come to grips with the catastrophe that claimed over 100,000
lives in Asia, including in his native Andhra Pradesh.
tsunami warning system can’t be set up for India alone but it should be a
combined effort for 30-odd countries in the entire Indian Ocean Rim all the way
from Australia to Africa. For instance, the Pacific Ocean Rim warning system
serves 26 nations. “It’s not country specific. It is meant for all the
nations which share a common coastline,” he said.
tsunamis are rare in the Indian Ocean, as compared to the Pacific, the time has
come to establish a full-fledged warning center," he said. "If it had
been as frequent as in Pacific, I am sure by this time, the warning system would
have been in place."
a lot of work and aid came from the US for the Pacific tsunami warning system,
it operates under the aegis of the UN system that also contributes funds for the
project and to the pool of resources collected from member countries.
have not sent any proposal to the government of India. However, each time I met with my professional colleagues in India, be they from Meteorological
Department, Geological Survey of India, Department of Oceanography or Council of
Scientific and Industrial Research, I strongly advocated the importance of
installing a tsunami warning system, preferably in Visakhapatnam in Andhra
Pradesh,” he said.
has been the response to his suggestions so far and have they fallen on deaf
they too had realized the importance of establishing the center and our
scientists are second to none in professionalism. The tsunami being a very rare
phenomenon in this part of the world, I guess they had problems selling the
concept to the government or the bureaucracy. I can assure you that our
scientists are neither reluctant nor ignorant of the gravity of the situation. I
would not blame the Indian scientists at all,” he said.
felt that there could have been other urgent issues for the powers-that-be. If
scientists give an estimate of several million dollars to set up a center for a
disaster that could happen once in 50 years, the chances of rejection are very
floods or cyclones occur every year and naturally the government takes more
interest in them. "I don’t see any politics or laxity in the issue but
unfortunately when tsunami hits the coast it’s devastating. I had emphasized
on every single working-level scientist I met the need for a tsunami warning
system in India. I don’t know any politician back home to convince them of the
need to set up one. I am not blaming anyone in the Indian government but feel
sorry for what has happened. Unfortunately, scientists do not have the clout to
sell the concept. The Indian scientists are also frustrated and feel sorry that
they could not do much to mitigate the calamity. If a tsunami had struck every
year, the government could have listened to them,” he said.
The Pacific Rim model
project involves setting up of various sub-committees. There could be one with
experts on subjects like earthquake who will look into the seismograph network.
It would check whether the existing network is adequate for ocean earthquakes,
or whether a few more gauges are necessary. The second subcommittee could
consist of oceanography experts to look at a tide-gauge network that would
monitor the sea-level waves.
may be several tide-gauges in the Indian Ocean and the committee would study
whether they need to add some more for optimum results. Besides the instrumental
support calls for the setting up of a round-the-clock tsunami warning center for
the whole rim at one place.
the staff will be from India, the facility would represent all the countries who
would contribute annually for the maintenance of the center. The center will
have a staff strength of 25 to 30 who would be working in three shifts of eight
hours and function all through the year without any break. The center would be
linked to a satellite for real-time communication to seismographic and
tide-gauge networks, and also to emergency management and preparedness teams for
early warning and evacuation.
seismologist and an oceanographer along with computer experts and communication
specialists should man the center all the time as tsunami could strike anytime
of the year.
third sub-committee would take care of computer modeling for all the
member-nations. India with its superiority in Information Technology is an ideal
place to set up a computer modeling sub-station.
computer modules would look at likely places of earthquakes and run a series of
computer models to propagate the tsunami that it generated to the coastlines of
all the member-countries to see how fast these waves travel and what would be
the height of the waves. It’s a computer simulation with dozens of scenarios.
All the simulation data would be stored in the warning center’s database that
is available to the staff manning the center. When a real event happens, within
15 minutes the seismologist connected to the real-time seismographic network
would be able to determine how large the impending earthquake would be, Murty explained.
the oceanographer gets to know the details, he could then decide how the tsunami
energy would spread, how long it would take for the waves to travel to
participating countries, and the amplitude of waves. Based on the data, the
scientist manning the station would decide whether it calls for emergency
evacuation or a mere alert and warning. Each country would have six to eight
designated disaster management experts who would be contacted in case of a
The tsunami can occur anytime of
the year and has nothing like a season. This is how the Pacific Tsunami warning
system works and others should be set up on similar lines, he added.
Who will foot the bill?
a citizen and director of National Tidal Laboratory of Australia, I am trying to
develop a warning system for that country and I have professional contacts in
countries such as Myanmar, Malaysia, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Thailand, Sri Lanka
and Pakistan. All these nations are keen on joining the Indian Ocean Rim but the
question is who is to bell the cat? There is no better country than India to
take the lead,” Murty says. The
Indian Foreign Minister should call for a high-level meeting to kick-start the
Indian Foreign Minister should call for a high-level meeting to kick-start the
call some experts in the field to put together the center. Once the system is
set up, the participating governments get at least three to four hours to
evacuate people along the coast.
the recent case, the tsunami reached the southern tip of Sri Lanka after two hours, South India after three hours, and the Andaman after
four hours. It’s not that there was no forewarning. But there may be no apparent indication and the sea is calm even minutes before
the eruption of waves, he added.
network would be able to predict tsunamis accurately and the extent of damage it
can wreck and nothing else. We check the tide-gauge nearest to the earthquake in
real-time. You don’t need to evacuate the entire country and computer models
would indicate the points where tsunami would hit and only those areas should be
evacuated. There would be enough time to do that. Suppose the waves are only one
meter in height, there is no need to evacuate people. The computer models
would be extremely detailed and would be an invaluable tool. We will know where
to evacuate and when to evacuate.
Ocean is the largest and bigger than the Indian Ocean and Canada has the
world’s longest coastline and Canada forms part of the Pacific Rim. “In the
Pacific system, we have done it several times successfully avoiding human loss
of life in Canada and states such as Washington, Hawaii, Alaska and Oregon in
the US, thanks to the Pacific Rim system.”
Did the Pacific Rim facility have advance notice of the tsunami that struck Asia? Murty said the Alaska
center tried to communicate what it knew to India out of sheer goodwill but could not
inform anyone in the absence of precise contact details.
their mandate is only the Pacific, yet they attempted to reach Indian authorities
desperately. There was no official contact with India and the center and how
would some one sitting in Alaska know who to contact in New Delhi or Chennai. I
guess as a desperate measure, they must have randomly contacted some Indian
friends or acquaintances to alert them. They did not contact me as this is not a
Pacific Tsunami. The center did not have any telephone numbers or contacts on
records on India to establish a contact.”
the phenomenon, he said earth plates underthrust each other or overthrust each
other to create earthquakes and when that happens under water, it calls for closer
monitoring. It’s not possible to monitor whether the plates are moving
and in what direction even with the help of satellites.
Murty was born in tiny hamlet near the coastal town of Guntur in Andhra Pradesh and
studied meteorology and Oceanography in Andhra University. He completed his graduate
and doctoral courses at the University of Chicago and joined the Canadian
Government in the Oceanographic Service and served 27 years. During his
employment, he helped develop the Canadian Tsunami warning system.
role relates to the computer modeling component of the system. I took an early retirement
and went to Australia as a director of the National Tidal Facility there for three
years. I returned to Canada to work as a research scientist in University of
Murty is also associated with the government of Andhra Pradesh as an expert in dealing
with the state’s perennial problem of cyclones and floods. He developed a
project that is nearing completion. In his view, Andhra Pradesh will have the
most sophisticated computer module for cyclones and flooding, compared to any
other Indian state. "The Andhra Pradesh
government has invested a lot of time and money and invited national and
international experts,” he said. The state has spent $10 million for the
cyclone and river flooding projects.
"If a cyclone occurs today, Andhra Pradesh is more prepared than other states. I am also
willing to help other states in a similar capacity. For instance, I got the
Canadian government to aid Orissa to set up a cyclone warning system, he said.
is also working with the Myanmar government on a cyclone project. In
Bangladesh, he has been working with the government in setting up and
maintaining a cyclone project for the past 25 years.
Has Tamil Nadu shown any interest? Murty said he had invited all the maritime states to a workshop in Orissa and some IAS officers from Tamil Nadu and
other states had taken part. But no follow up had been made.
India has seen several tsunami attacks and the last was in November 1945
in the Arabian Sea. A few hundred people were killed. The 1945 tsunami was bigger
than the recent one. It had a 11.8 meter wave amplitude and luckily
it did not hit Mumbai or Ahmedabad and the casualties were not
huge. "My computer module shows that last week’s tsunami had the amplitude
of a maximum of seven meters at the very southern tip of India. I had run several
computer simulation modules for India before and after the disaster. It could
have been higher in some places with the waves reaching up to the height of a
Palmyra tree, mainly when water funnels into canals, inlets, gulfs and bays, he said.
Prakash M Swamy, Ph.D (USA), is Editor-in-Chief, The Urban Indian newsweekly, The Empire State Building, 350 Fifth Avenue, #2612, New York.