Monday, December 27, 2004

The First Drops of Rain

The tsunami that ripped across the Indian Ocean, smashing westward into Sri Lanka, the Indian subcontinent and eventually to Africa is an example of a rare event, like an asteroid strike, which is often considered uneconomical to prepare against until it happens. In hindsight, a few simple precautions could have saved thousands of lives. Glenn Reynolds links to a USCGS postmortem of the disaster.

"Most of those people could have been saved if they had had a tsunami warning system in place or tide gauges," he said yesterday. "And I think this will be a lesson to them," he said, referring to the governments of the devastated countries. Person also said that because large tsunamis, or seismic sea waves, are extremely rare in the Indian Ocean, people were never taught to flee inland after they felt the tremors of an earthquake. Tsunami warning systems and tide gauges exist around the Pacific Ocean, for the Pacific Rim as well as South America. The United States has such warning centres in Hawaii and Alaska operated by the US Geological Survey. But none of these monitors the Indian Ocean region.

Now that a tsunami has struck the Indian Ocean there were will probably be a clamor to invest in monitoring and warning systems costing billions. Ironically, these magnificent systems will probably go unused for years, perhaps centuries, before politicians in the future elected by voters whose memory of these tragedies has faded say 'what are these White Elephants for?' and abolish them in favor a more immediately beneficial project. The characteristic of rare events is that they are rare.

Although the geological record shows that large asteroids occasionally strike the earth and that tsunamis sometimes ravage coastal areas, the rarity of their occurrence often precludes the formation of a political consensus to sustain preparations against them. There will be momentary interest, a search for scapegoats and then a gradual return to forgetfulness. As Tim Blair's links show, the trivialization has started already.

Sydney Morning Herald readers have their say:

A pity our army is busy fighting America's immoral war when they should be providing assistance to the affected areas. - Shane Arnold

These divine winds show that the Gods are displeased with the world's state of affairs. - Tomoyuki Yamashita

An opportunity for western governments to divert some funds to aid assistance projects rather than their billion dollar war obsessions. - Mother Nature strikes

This latest tragic disaster should open all our eyes to the fact that the world seems to already have its "hands full" coping with seemingly ongoing natural disasters rather than creating such man made disasters as we have contributed to in Iraq. - wayne gregory

Dont expect a genuinely compassionate response from the U.S. Government, as a "war on earthquakes" will not be as profitable as good ol' terrorism - Nick Loveday

But in truth, there is very little that aircraft carriers, B-2 bombers and Marine Amphibious groups can supply in the way of relief that civilian government on the spot cannot provide better and more quickly if given the money. The window of opportunity to make a difference came when seismographs all over the world measured the quake and triangulated its epicenter. Then, and surely after the first giant waves crashed ashore in Phuket, Thailand it would have been evident that a tsunami danger existed across the whole Indian Ocean.  The Indian subcontinent, still some hours distant from the ocean monster which was then bearing down at airliner speed, might have received the benefit of warning. The communications technology existed to theoretically raise the alarm, but like an organism whose nervous pathways exist yet do not meet in a central place where the impulses can be collated to make sense, no one knew what to make of the data. And the waves crashed down on unsuspecting thousands.

In an abstract way, the information flows surrounding the Tsunami of December 2004 structurally resembled those preceding the Pearl Harbor and September 11 attacks. The raw data announcing the unfolding threat was there, yet the pattern so evident in hindsight was invisible to those who were not looking for it. But if tsunamis and asteroid strikes are rare events, they are comparatively more common than that still rarer object, the unprecedented event: the something that has never happened before. Threats like that can emerge suddenly out of chaotic systems, like WMD terrorism or new viral plagues. Against such events, specific precautions are impossible because no one can prepare for what cannot be foreseen. The real challenge is not so much to create a new dedicated network of staring systems against known threats but to tie current sensors to systems which are capable of cognition. The most valuable survival asset is situational awareness -- the ability to recognize threats you have never seen before and respond in an evolving manner -- and that capability has not yet come to the world as a whole.

The realization of its necessity has come, at least in some small measure, to institutions which are scorned by some the sneering readers of the Sydney Morning Herald. The Internet, space based sensors, biohazard threat detection, the exoatmospheric interception of earthbound objects  -- are all things deemed at one time or another as a waste of money by the more enlightened,  but which may yet provide the margin for survival in a day unforeseen or unimagined. More important than the the specific technologies themselves is the watchful and precautionary mindset which created them. For some, the world is not and was never a paradaisal Gaia but a dangerous place filled with peril both natural and man-made. On the days we forget the ocean is there to remind us.