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Keen ear for tsunamis

THE CHALLENGE

Located at the confluence of three tectonic plates, the Indonesian archipelago often experiences seismic activity, including undersea earthquakes or landslides that generate tsunamis.

Since 2008, the Indonesian government has invested in building a tsunami early warning system that comprises an upstream detecting section, a seismograph, an accelerometer and a camera for earthquake observation and detection and is supported by tide gauges and GPS devices and buoys. It also includes a downstream information system to generate and disseminate the appropriate warning level for the community at risk. Due to damage from vandalism and weather, the surface buoys were discontinued in 2012, decreasing the warnings’ reliability. Whilst alternative that provide solid information on seismic risk – undersea optical cable networks – are available, they’re too costly for Indonesia.

Since then, with funding from the US National Science Foundation, research institutions in Indonesia and the US began developing a prototype early tsunami detection and warning system that takes an alternative, less costly approach to buoys. Unfortunately, budget cuts and the Indonesian agencies’ limited funding delayed deployment of the undersea network essential to complete the prototype by two years. Now, with funding from the Swiss Re Foundation, the international team can complete the prototype and collect data and documentation to help the Indonesian government assess whether this innovative system warrants further investment.

THE APPROACH

This project aims to strengthen the capacity of Indonesia’s tsunami early warning system by using undersea networks of sensors, acoustic communication and a connecting optical cable that’s more robust to vandalism than buoys and can be implemented at lower cost than wholly cable-based systems. The prototype combines an underwater pressure sensor and acoustic communication node with a submarine optical cable. This hybrid approach reduces the amount of undersea cable required to reach the sensor relative to extensive optical cable networks. It also exploits the properties of the equatorial ocean waters to refract the acoustic waves the remote sensor relies on for data transmission so that sound retains its fidelity.

GOAL AND EXPECTED IMPACT

The goal is to address a problem unique to countries that, like Indonesia, face coastal threats from near-field tsunamis but lack funding to install and maintain an undersea cable network such as those deployed by Japan and the US. 

The project is expected to strengthen Indonesia’s tsunami early warning system. This will enable at-risk communities, such as the 1 million people living around Padang, to collectively assess, respond and recover from extreme events faster and more effectively. The innovative approach to be deployed and tested here could potentially be replicated in all 28 countries bordering the Indian Ocean. 

University of Pittsburgh

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University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Disaster Management was established in 2009 to advance the field of emergency management through research, analysis, education, and collaboration with scholars and practitioners.

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We support people in preparing for, preventing and bouncing back from catastrophes and coping with climate risk.

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