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The Tsunami: Failures and Omissions in the Global Seismic Warning System

by Michel Chossudovsky

www.globalresearch.ca   23 January 2005

The URL of this article is: http://globalresearch.ca/articles/CHO501A.html

The tsunami warning system was examined in two earlier texts: Foreknowledge of a Natural Disaster , (29 Dec  2004) and Discrepancies in the Tsunami Warning System (14 Jan 2005). The text below examines the broader seismic network.

While the matter has been carefully avoided by the Western media, sidestepped by the governments, the United Nations and the international scientific community, there is evidence of serious failures and omissions in the seismic warning system pertaining to one of the most destructive and powerful earthquakes in recorded history.

According to Columbia University's Earth Institute the M-9.0 Sumatra – Andaman Island earthquake of December 26, 2004, (00:58:53 UTC)  released energy, equivalent roughly to 700 million Hiroshima bombs.

Seismic information regarding what is catalogued by scientists as a  "rare great earthquake", was available in near real time (i.e. almost immediately) to seismic centers around the World. 

The tsunami had already happened within minutes of the earthquake, so it was no longer a question of emitting "a warning" that there was an imminent danger. 

By the time the first tsunami bulletin had been issued, the catastrophe was underway. Corroborated by GPS satellite images, available to a number of civilian/ military and intelligence agencies Worldwide, the deadly seismic wave had already swept the Aceh coastline, causing tens of thousands of deaths.

But what is more disturbing is that the ex post facto bulletin emitted by the PTWC did not even warn of the potential danger of a tsunami, when the deadly seismic had already hit.

Double standards?

Three days earlier, on the 23d of December, a M-7.9 earthquake was recorded with an epicenter off the South Pacific MacQuarie islands The PTWC issued the following routine tsunami advisory: 


Why then in the case of a M-9.0 earthquake, which is more than ten times greater in magnitude than a M-7.9 earthquake, did the PTWC authorities fail to issue a tsunami warning?

An event of this type and magnitude is known as a “megathrust,” which in its specific Indian Ocean location is said to occur  "approximately every few hundred years." (See Columbia University Earth Institute ). Scientists in fact suggested that the quake had unleashed enough energy that "it could have rocked the earth off its axis." (See: Huge quake resonates, Carolyn Y. Johnson, Boston Globe)

In other words, the least one would have expected in the case of a "megathrust" was a similar routine statement to that issued in relation to the McQuarie islands earthquake, three days earlier, on December 23. 

But no. There was no warning. No consistency in the criteria.

The Earthquake took place at 00.58.53 GMT on the 26th of December. Five minutes later it hit the coast of Sumatra, 11 minutes after the earthquake it devastated Banda, capital of Aceh.  Fifteen minutes after the earthquake, at 01.14 GMT the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii confirmed in a routine fashion:


Moreover, both official and news reports out of Aceh province, following the disaster, were either delayed or were not transmitted on time.

In other words, despite its characteristics and the dramatic nature of the quake, the seismic information, which was available in real time, failed to reach the countries affected by the seismic wave.

Why were the countries not informed of an impending disaster? In the words of Maine Senator Olympia Snowe:

"... what efforts, if any, were made to contact those other nations in the region that were also in harm’s way? If NOAA did not have the appropriate contacts, as has been reported, why was this the case? Was an attempt made to obtain that contact information – and if not, why not? These are questions that must be answered.”

The News Reports

The Western media not only failed to address shortcomings in the warning system, they admonished those who raised the issue.

In fact, any serious analysis of the warning system was dismissed outright. The blame was casually placed on the Indian Ocean countries, which were described as having inadequate communications systems.    

A few press reports confirmed that, with the exception of Indonesia and Australia, the Indian Ocean countries had not been informed. These same reports, largely based on statements of the Pacific Tsunami Warning system (PTWC) in Hawaii, also acknowledged that the US State Department and the Military, including the US Navy base on the island of Diego Garcia in the Chagos Archipelago had been duly notified.

In retrospect, these earlier press reports (including our own analysis ) needs to be qualified. Published in the immediate wake of the disaster, they point to the fact that the US government and military authorities had been informed by the PTWC, when in fact the PTWC was on the "receiving end" of the flow of seismic data. (See our own report: Foreknowledge of a Natural Disaster , See also Richard Norton Taylor, US island base given warning: Bulletins sent to Diego Garcia 'could have saved lives', The Guardian, Jan 2005).

The PTWC bulletins are but the tip of the iceberg: The information on the quake was known and available in real time, to an entire network of seismic organizations. It was also on hand and accessible to a number of government agencies both in the US and internationally, almost immediately.

In other words, we are not dealing solely with information from a single warning Center in Ewo, Hawaii, but with an entire network of seismic information.

Who informs Whom?

The question is not why the PTWC did not emit a tsunami warning but why did an entire global network of scientists and officials not emit a warning, in relation to one of the most significant seismic events in recorded history.

Who informs whom? While the PTWC had indeed formally notified Washington and the Military at Diego Garcia, the US government already knew, because the seismic data had been processed within minutes by an agency under the jurisdiction of the US Department of the Interior, namely the National Earthquake Information Center (NEIC) based in Golden (close to Denver), Colorado.  

"The National Earthquake Information Service (NEIS) of the U. S. Geological Survey is located at the National Earthquake Information Center (NEIC) in Golden, Colorado, USA which also serves as World Data Center A for Seismology. The NEIS is a member of the Council of the National Seismic System (CNSS) which coordinates activities among the national and regional seismograph networks, including "finger quake" services. The NEIS is also closely associated with the U.S. National Seismograph Network (USNSN) and cooperates with national and international seismological organizations around the world. Unlike other members of the CNSS, the NEIS is responsible for reporting on moderate to large earthquakes throughout the U. S. and large earthquakes worldwide... On an immediate basis, all Earthquake Early Alerting Service alarm events will be made available to the "quake" list. At a minimum, this includes... most foreign earthquakes of magnitude 6.5 or greater. In practice, many foreign earthquakes smaller than a magnitude of 6.5 will also be provided on an immediate basis..." 

For further details: See http://neic.usgs.gov/neis/finger/qk_info.html , http://neic.usgs.gov/neis/finger/qk_info.html , http://neic.usgs.gov/neis/bulletin/neic_slav_ts.html , http://neic.usgs.gov/neis/bulletin/neic_slav_ts.html , http://earthquake.usgs.gov/eqinthenews/2004/usslav/neic_slav_faq.html

The seismographic data did not originate at the PTWC, which is part of the Weather Service of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) under the jurisdiction of the US Department of Commerce. Moreover, the seismic data was recorded both within the Indian Ocean region and around the World by a number of stations, relayed to a network of seismic centers in a number of countries.     

In other words, omissions and failures in the warning system were by no means limited to the PTWC, which is integrated into a global information network which records in real time, processes and transmits seismic data. Several key organizations (including the NEIC) are involved in this network, which could have duly advised the countries concerned.

Where did the seismic data originate? 

This issue, which is crucial to an understanding of the earthquake, was barely mentioned by the media.  

The data regarding the magnitude of the earthquake originated from four seismic stations located in the Indian Ocean. These four stations are operated by the International Deployment of Accelerometers (IDA) Project , which is part of a global network of seismometers. IDA is in turn integrated into the IRIS Global Seismographic Network (GSN ) and into the system of the National Earthquake Information Center World Data Center for Seismology, Denver (NEIC (WDCS-D)), to which are linked seismic stations in the US and internationally. (See Eric Waddell, The Tsunami: Why Weren't They Warned? Jan 2005, http://globalresearch.ca/articles/WAD501A.html )

One of the IDA stations DGAR (Diego Garcia) which became operational in January 2004 is actually located on the site of the US military base. The other three stations are: COCO (Cocos [Keeling] Islands which is located in an Australian administered territory, PALK (Sri Lanka), and MSEY (Seychelles) .

In addition to these four stations, the M-9 earthquake was recorded by a number of other seismic stations in the region including several "auxiliary seismic stations" in Indonesia as well as one in Sri Lanka. (Parapat, Sumatera PSI Auxiliary Seismic Station AS043 2.7 98 is the closest facility to the epicenter). Moreover, in addition to the four Indian Ocean stations, the earthquake was also recorded by other IDA/IRIS  seismic stations. (See http://ida.ucsd.edu/SpecialEvents/2004/361/a/index.shtml#parameters . Auxiliary Stations as  opposed to Primary stations do not transmit data in real time to the IDA)

The Chain of information

Seismographic data was transmitted in real time from the four IDA sponsored Indian Ocean stations DGAR (Diego Garcia),  COCO (Cocos [Keeling] Islands , PALK (Sri Lanka), and MSEY (Seychelles) to both the IRIS and NEIC centers, where they were then immediately retransmitted (in real time) to the PTWC as well as other relevant agencies.

In other words, while the press reports acknowledge that the island military base was formally notified of the dangers of a seismic wave, what they failed to mention was that part of the seismic data used to justify the advisory had in fact originated in Diego Garcia, and that the data from Diego Garcia and three other Indian Ocean stations had immediately been recorded not only by the PTWC in Hawaii but by the IDA/IRIS and NEIC, and most probably by the US military, which receives information from the NEIC.

All four stations transmitted relevant data, which can be consulted at the IDA website (See table 1 Below)

 Table 1 IDA Project Links to Seismographic Readings

Source: IDA Project. Magnitude 9.0 quake off the west coast of Northern Sumatra (click to access the relevant data)



Figure 1: Seismographic readings for Dec 26, 2005 at Diego Garcia DGAR

click image to enlarge

Source: Project IDA, http://ida.ucsd.edu/SpecialEvents/2004/361/a/DGARunclip.gif

The US Military Base at Diego Garcia

The IDA/IRIS seismic station DGAR (Diego Garcia) , is in a vault located on the grounds of the US Air Force's Ground-Based Electro-Optical Deep Space Surveillance (GEODSS) station at the US military base. The GEODSS Diego Garcia facility provides "space surveillance data" through three powerful telescopes. GEODSS also monitors moving objects and meteorites; concomitantly, it also uses seismographic data.

While DGAR was established with the cooperation of the US military, it is categorized as a civilian scientific facility. The later uses the island's military base's communications facilities to transmit its seismic readings to the IDA/IRIS center in Seattle.

In other words, with a modern systems of communication, the data was transmitted in real time from these Indian Ocean four seismic stations to the Seattle and Golden (Denver, Colorado) centers as well as to the PTWC in Hawaii, and other centres, agencies of government, etc, in the US and internationally.

Whether the seismographic readings from DGAR were directly available to military personnel on location at Diego Garcia at the GEODSS facility is not known, although in all likelihood, the Diego Garcia military authorities would in any event have (near) real time access to the seismic data monitored by NEIC and other seismic centers.

The IMS  System of the CTBTO

In addition to the IDA/IRIS stations, the International Monitoring System (IMS) of the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) based in Vienna, operates several stations in the Indian Ocean region, three of which are in fact located in the Chagos Archipelago (British Indian Ocean Territory). (See map)   Two of these stations are situated directly on the site of the US military base. In other words, there are in all four stations in the Chagos archipelago, which use the communications system of the US military base.

The IMS confirmed that it recorded the December 26th earthquake at 78 of its stations, including those in the Indian Ocean  "within seconds to minutes of the event." (of the 78 IMS stations, 71 were using the seismic, six the hydroacoustic and one the infrasound technologies). The single infrasound station, which is recorded data, is located within proximity of Diego Garcia in the Chagos Archipelago.

The CTBTO confirms in this regard that "the first automatic event list containing the Sumatra earthquake was released by the International Data Center (IDC) in Vienna two hours after the event." It nonetheless confirms that the "raw data from the monitoring stations" were communicated "in near real time" to national data centers of state signatories including Australia, Indonesia and Thailand. (See text of CTBTO Press Release )

Four Monitoring Stations in the Chagos Archipelago

The CTBTO/IMS stations are the BIOT/Chagos Hydroacoustic Station (HA08), the BIOT/Chagos Radionuclide Station (RN66) both located at Diego Garcia and the BIOT/Chagos Infrasound Station (IS52) (located North of the military base, see map below). The Radionuclide Station (RN66) located at Diego Garcia, monitors radioactivity in the Indian Ocean basin. (see  http://pws.ctbto.org/verification/facilities/monfacoutput.dhtml?&vcol=a.name&vord=desc )   

These IMS stations transmit data in real time to the CTBTO International Data Centre (IDC) in Vienna.

In other words, the Vienna based IMS also knew what had happened within minutes of the M-9.0 earthquake. To date, none of the data collected at its Indian Ocean stations has been made public, although it is normally transmitted to the signatory governments and is no doubt also available to the US military.   

The functions of these stations under the CTBTO mandate are as follows:

"The IMS uses seismic, hydroacoustic and infrasound monitoring technologies to detect the transient signals created when the energy is released in underground, underwater and atmosphere environments, respectively. Radionuclide monitoring technologies collect and analyze air samples for evidence of the physical products created and carried by the winds. Seismic, hydroacoustic and infrasound, or the wave technologies, all utilize sensors which record signals from explosions and naturally occurring events in the form of digital waveforms. These digital waveforms or time series provide diagnostic information to detect, locate and characterize the energy source. Radionuclide technology is based on air samplers which collect and analyse atmospheric particulate matter deposited on collection filters. The analysis of the radionuclide content uniquely confirms the fact of a nuclear explosion."

(For further details see, CBTO, The Global Verification Regime and the International Monitoring System, Vienna, 2001  http://pws.ctbto.org/reference/outreach/booklet3.pdf )

In other words, the data collected by the three Chagos islands IMS stations have the capacity of "registering shock waves emanating from a nuclear explosion underground, in the seas and in the air, as well as detecting radioactive debris released into the atmosphere." This data could shed light on the nature of the disaster, while also dispelling speculation by some news media that the tsunami could have been caused by an underground explosion.

It is therefore crucial that the readings from these three BIOT IMS stations, which are available to the signatory governments, be promptly released and analyzed

Fig 2

Click image to access map of Diego Garcia and Chagos archipelago



Table 2


1. IDA/ IRIS DGAR (Diego Garcia), Seismometer on the site of the US Air Force's Ground-Based Electro-Optical Deep Space Surveillance (GEODSS) station at Diego Garcia. -7.3 S 72.4 E

2. IMS/ CTBTO BIOT Chagos Hydroacoustic Station (HA08) at -7.3 S 72.4 E located at the Diego Garcia US military base

3. IMS/ CTBTO BIOT Chagos Radionuclide Station (RN66) at -7.0 S 72.0 E located at the Diego Garcia US military base.

4. IMS/ CTBTO  BIOT Chagos Infrasound Station (IS52) at -5.0 S 72.0 E located near Peros Banhos Island

CTBT International Monitoring System
  • The primary and auxiliary seismic stations  monitor seismic signals propagating through the earth from natural events (earthquakes) and man-made events (mining blasts and explosions);
  • The radionuclide stations pick up traces of radioactivity following a nuclear explosion in the atmosphere or leaked from an underground nuclear test;
  • The hydroacoustic stations detect explosions on the ocean surface and under the water; and
  • The infrasound stations provide evidence of a possible atmospheric explosion by detecting sound pressure waves in the atmosphere.

Source: FAS


Concluding Remarks: The Need for An Investigation into the Warning System

In the context of a serious investigation of the warning system, what questions should we be asking?

What agencies in the US, in the Indian Ocean countries and internationally were informed?

When were they informed? What type of data did they have? Some of that data has not been released.

Why did the information not reach the people on time in the countries affected by the tsunami?

What factors, administrative or otherwise, contributed to preventing that information from being transmitted?

Bear in mind, we are not dealing strictly with seismographic data, satellite images of the devastation in Northern Sumatra were also available within a few minutes after the earthquake. Moreover, the Vienna based CTBTO compiles hydroacoustic, infrasound and radionuclide data, which was transmitted from its stations in the Chagos islands archipelago.

The approximate speed of the seismic wave was known. According to the reports, the tsunami was moving at a speed of roughly 20 km a minute with regard to Sri Lanka. It hit the Indonesian coast within 5 minutes, in other words 11 minutes before the release of the first TPWC bulletin, Banda Aceh was hit by the tsunami 12 minutes after the earthquake. 

In other words, it was possible to predict at what time the seismic wave would hit the coastlines of Thailand, Sri Lanka, India, The Maldives and Somalia.

The Tsunami was immediate. There are no Ocean sensors in the Indian Ocean. But this was not the cause of the failures and omissions in the warning system.

The Tsunami became active immediately following the earthquake. No warnings were sent out following the seismic readings despite the fact that the tsunami had already hit the Indonesian coast.

This is the key issue.

The Tsunami was active, and this was known, corroborated by GPS satellite images at least 30 minutes prior to hitting Thailand.


The Global Tsunami Warning System

While the PTWC failed to acknowledge the existence of the tsunami in its first two bulletins, the Tsunami was in fact monitored in real time by a number of monitoring stations of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to which the PTWC belongs.

Modeling enabled scientists to evaluate the traveling time of the tsunami. From the outset of the earthquake at 00.59 UTC on the 26th, tsunami waves were monitored by a number of stations. Moreover, NOAA has acknowledged that it had very precise satellite images which enables it to measure the height of the tsunami. These height measurements were available but were only processed at a later period (See http://www.noaanews.noaa.gov/stories2005/s2365.htm )


NOAA: Tsunami Height Measurements (satellite) click to enlarge 

Related Global Research Articles

Foreknowledge of a Natural Disaster: Washington was aware that a deadly Tidal Wave was building up in the Indian Ocean, Michel Chossudovsky

The Tsunami: Why Weren't They Warned? Eric Waddell

Discrepancies in the Tsunami Warning System, Michel Chossudovsky

US island base given warning: Bulletins sent to Diego Garcia 'could have saved lives' Richard Norton-Taylor

Senator Snowe Questions Absence of Tsunami Warning

Links to important sources of information:

Columbia University Earth Institute

Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology (IRIS) , Washington D.C

IRIS network of  128+ (often unmanned) seismic monitoring stations worldwide.

IRIS Data Management Center in Seattle

International Deployment of Accelerometers (IDA)

IDA 40 stations worldwide,

IDA stations in the Indian Ocean:

COCO (Cocos [Keeling] Islands  

PALK (Sri Lanka),

MSEY (Seychelles)

DGAR (Diego Garcia).

The National Earthquake Information Center (NEIC)

World Data Center of the National Earthquake Information Center in Denver, USA.

Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics , University of California, San Diego,

USGS United States Geological Survey

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA)

NOAA: West Coast/Alaska Tsunami Warning Center: Indian Ocean Tsunami of 26 December, 2004

NOAA Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, PTWC

NOAA West Coast & Alaska Tsunami Warning Center, WCATWC

DART: Animated TSUNAMI Warning System

The National Tsunami Hazard Mitigation Program

International Monitoring System (IMS) of the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO)

IMS monitoring Stations

Map of IMS Facilities (takes time to download)

IISSE:  Off Coast of Northern Sumatra Earthquake (Japan)

IISSE: Preliminary Results of Rupture Process for 2004 OFF COAST OF NORTHERN SUMATRA Giant Earthquake (ver. 1)  

İstanbul Technical University, Department of Geophysical Engineering, Seismology Section 

SUMATRA EARTHQUAKE (Mw~9.0) of DECEMBER 26, 2004 Source Rupture Processes and Slip Distribution Modelling

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