December 26, 2004 a massive earthquake rocked the islands of Indonesia. One of the biggest on record, experts immediately feared a gigantic tidal wave—a tsunami—would follow.
And follow it did, with a horrific outcome as it swept away whole towns, changed the coastline in a matter of seconds and decimating the countryside with a towering wave that drove far inland destroying everything in its path.
In the aftermath, the number of dead were tallied and the official figures published pegged those that perished from the wave as more than 240,000. The actual number may be much higher, but no one will ever know for sure.
Because of the devastation and loss of human life, the government of Indonesia vowed to create a tsunami warning system. contracting with the German government, scientists worked with both governments to develop the technology to guard against such horrendous loss of life from tsunamis in the future.
According to sciencedaily.com, the Federal Government of Germany contracted with the Helmholtz Association—represented by the Helmholtz Center Potsdam-GFZ German Research Center for Geoscience—to develop and implement an early warning system for tsunamis in the Indian Ocean. The work was funded by a government grant.
Now almost six years later to the day, the German-Indonesian Tsunami Early Warning System (GITEWS) has been completed. For the time being the Germans will assist in managing it, but after March 31, 2011 the responsibility of managing and maintaining the system falls squarely on the shoulders of the Indonesians.
Professor Reinhard Hüttl, Scientific Director of the GFZ German Research Center for Geosciences was interviewed about Indonesia’s first tsunami warning system by sciencedaily.com. Huttl said, “The innovative technical approach of GITEWS is based on a combination of different sensors, whose central element is a fast and precise detection and analysis of earthquakes, supported by GPS measurements.”
Speed and accuracy are essential to the calculations determining the probability of an earthquake generated tsunami. The German system has proven to be so reliable it’s now been installed in over 40 countries, the professor said.
With the GITEWS fully activated, a tsunami alert can be issued in five minutes or less. Once an ocean earthquake is detected, streams of realtime data are available from 300 monitoring stations constructed across the Indonesian island chain. According to the professor, the monitoring stations include GPS stations, seismometers, and an intricate network of tide gauges and buoy systems.
The system captures the data from multiple sources, scans it and sorts into an array that’s converted into a situation map. The authorities along the coastline that is targeted to be in danger of being hit by a tsunami are alerted with a graduated warning scale that assesses the level of the threat.
An unscheduled test of the GITEWS occurred on October 25, 2010. A tsunami was generated by a strong earthquake (the Mentawai quake) and the system correctly identified that the Pagai islands off of Sumatra in the Sumatra Arc as being in danger.
The first wave hit the coast at the same time GITEWS issued the alert. Because the tsunami that was generated was so close to the epicenter and the coastline of the island, less than 5 minutes elapsed before the waves hit. Unfortunately 500 lives were lost.
Analysis by a team of experts from the US, Japan, Germany, and Indonesia found that the warning had been given and received by the authorities on the island, but no time was left to evacuate.
While no natural disaster can be completely avoided, adequate warning of an approaching event will save lives. The aim of GITEWS is to provide an advanced warning, like hurricanes and tornado warnings. In that way, precious lives will be spared that otherwise would have been lost.