This week's Nature also includes an outstanding editorial by Keith Alverson, "Watching Over the World's Oceans" (PDF), arguing that the oceanographic response to the December tsunami should not be limited to a handful of tsunami sensors. Previous implementations of stand-alone tsunami warning systems have had mixed results, and because tsunamis are such rare events, funding for their maintenance often doesn't have a high priority. A better solution, he suggests, would make tsunami observations part of a larger system:
...the best way to ensure that a tsunami warning system remains fully operational for decades to come is to embed it in broader efforts to observe the ocean. ...
...Data used for tsunami warnings are of potential interest to an enormous array of users and stakeholders. It is these other users who will ensure the system is maintained over the long term. For example, changes in observed sea level occur across many time scales, from seconds and minutes (wind waves, tsunamis), hours to days (tides, storm surges), and years (seasonal cycles, El Niño), through to longterm changes associated with climate change and the movement of land masses. Ocean circulation and long-term sea-level trends are monitored by the global array of tide gauges maintained by the Global Sea Level Observing System (GLOSS [see illustration below]) a component of the Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS). These are both run by the IOC [Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO], which aims to build a network of roughly 300 sea-level stations around the world (100 more than there are now), as well as several higher density regional networks.
The goal isn't simply to build a bigger monitoring network, it's to give everyone access to tools for understanding their world. Alverson is particularly sensitive to the need to make these technologies fit their cultural and social contexts.
Civil populations cannot be educated or warned without accounting for — and benefiting from — local knowledge and concerns. Outreach, education and public awareness efforts will only work if they are woven into national, cultural and local environmental fabrics. For example, in Aceh, Indonesia, it has been suggested that rapid delivery of warnings could exploit the wide distribution of Islamic mosques with loudspeaker systems used for calls to prayer....
In particular, the international scientific community must not get carried away with the tantalizing but flawed idea that there is a quick technological fix to these complex societal issues. Instead, we need to broker a process through which countries of any given region come to recognize themselves as the true owners of the system. In their eagerness to help, states or organizations from outside the region might even obstruct the process by which Indian Ocean rim countries come together to plan, create and implement a system. But such a process should develop a true sense of ownership and responsibility. The majority ofthe lives lost were Asian, and the countries of that region must be at the forefront of plans to protect themselves in the future.
Alverson's point that a system devoted exclusively to warnings about tsunamis will not last is well-taken. With Indian Ocean tsunamis being relatively rare events, cash-strapped nations in the region will inevitably reduce their funding for such a project. A broader ocean information system will be of greater immediate use, and even if the up-front costs are higher, the burden would be shared across the global community.
The more we know about the geophysical systems at work on our planet, the better we'll be able to predict, respond and adapt to them. This knowledge should not be limited to the nations of the West. The tools to access and understand how our planet works should be available to every nation -- and every nation should recognize the need to make use of such tools. Scientific understanding of the nature of our planet may well have considerable economic value, but every now and then it can also help to save lives.