ACT News

Don't be complacent, tsunami experts warn 10 years on from Indian Ocean wave

Ten  years on from the Indian Ocean tsunami that claimed up to 300,000 lives experts from the Joint Australian Tsunami Warning Centre warn the world should not be complacent about a repeat performance.

Established as a direct consequence of the cataclysm, the centre was a $69 million investment brought online in less than four years.

On alert: Co-director of the Joint Australian Tsunami Warning Centre in the Geoscience
Australia building at Symonston, ...
On alert: Co-director of the Joint Australian Tsunami Warning Centre in the Geoscience Australia building at Symonston, Daniel Jaksa Photo: Graham Tidy

It now responds to at least one undersea earthquake and possible tsunami a week.

"Living on planet earth is a risky business," Rick Bailey, the head of Tsunami Warning and Ocean Services with the Department of Meteorology, said.

On alert: Rick Bailey, head of  tsunami warning
and ocean services, at the Bureau of Meteorology.
On alert: Rick Bailey, head of tsunami warning and ocean services, at the Bureau of Meteorology.  Photo: Graham Tidy

"At the bureau our main job is dealing with hazards and risks such as bushfires, floods, tsunamis and, (as part of the centre jointly operated with Geoscience Australia at its complex in Narrabundah) earthquakes."

Having visited the sites of three mass graves on Bandah Aceh, each containing the bodies of 40,000 people buried in the aftermath of the Boxing Day Tsunami, he knows just how deadly such events can be.

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"I was there in 2010," he said. "The authorities have no idea who the 120,000 people are. There was no time for identification; there was a lack of reliable population data (in that area) to begin with and there was an urgent need to remove the bodies.

"You scatter flower petals (on the grave site). Visiting made me realise the size of our task; the importance of our task."

In the know: Dr Phil Cummins, professor of natural hazards at ANU.
In the know: Dr Phil Cummins, professor of natural hazards at ANU.  Photo: Graham Tidy

Dr Phil Cummins, the Florida-born, California-educated, Professor of Natural Hazards, Earthquake and Tsunami Research with Geoscience Australia who oversaw  the establishment of the JATWC, said if it had existed in 2004 many thousands of lives may have been saved.

"We could have warned people on the more distant coasts of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, Thailand, the Maldives, Seychelles, South Africa and Somalia," he said.

Dr Cummins had already been working on a proposal for a tsunami warning system for the Indian Ocean, to replicate the one that had been in place for the Pacific Ocean since the mid-1960s.

"I had read the literature and it indicated there was a risk (of a tsunami). Nobody expected something so soon."

After the disaster the warning system became a high priority; no bad thing given the 2004 quake marked the start of a period of seismic activity that continues to this day. It is one of four of the 10 largest earthquakes ever recorded that have occurred in the past 10 years.

Daniel Jaksa, the co-director of the JATWC, said the centre had opened its doors to the media on the eve of the tsunami's 10th anniversary in a bid to stop people from becoming complacent.

"Just because something happens rarely doesn't mean it won't happen again," he said.

"2004 shows us just how high the cost can be."

On the positive side, improved tsunami reporting since 2004 is already saving lives.

"In 2004 50 per cent of the people killed were close to the epicentre and 50 per cent lived much further away," he said. "Since then 99 per cent of (tsunami) casualties have been close to the epicentre. Early warning has proven its value."