The quake is the warning
And still, time punishes. There wasn't enough of it when a deadly wave careened in October 2010 toward the Indonesian island of Mentawai, a surfer's paradise off the coast of Padang. Alarm data streamed to the Jakarta main warning center. In seconds officials evaluated the results as they filtered through the system algorithms and models, and sent warnings to the Mentawai islands, police, local responders, and TV and radio broadcasters.
But the tsunami was on Mentawai in minutes and 400 people died. Local officials bitterly complained that the warning systems must have been vandalized or switched off—that people should have gotten a warning and did not. "That's wrong," Lauterjung says. Data shows a warning was sent out from the system within four minutes of the quake and broadcast on local radio and TV stations after seven minutes.
Sadly, that's just when the wave hit. As Goldfinger says, sometimes the quake is the warning.
Lauterjung says Mentawai presents the limit of early warning in terms of time. "And there is a limit, for the techniques these days," he says. Lauterjung himself and other researchers point out that science and technology aren't enough—much depends on behavior and luck; on not going back to the house to fetch family photographs; on taking bicycles rather than cars to higher ground to avoid traffic jams; on better education. Even little things like paying attention to animal behavior can help. (Even though they're not part of a warning system, some animals are sensitive to the low-frequency waves issued by earthquake and tsunami.)
He and other researchers also think there's still more to be done in making warning systems better. Georgia Institute of Technology geophysicist Andrew Newman, who is testing new early warning data-processing algorithms, expects improvements down the road in rapidly assessing earthquake source parameters, faster distribution of information, more precision in pinning down earthquake depth, rupture area, and the extent of slippage to determine seafloor displacement. GFZ researchers are also pursuing more experimental avenues for improvement, such as using satellite reflectometry and radar to monitor oceanic trenches for near-field tsunamis. Humboldt State University tsunami and earthquake expert Lori Dengler says it's a cost-benefit problem: What does shaving a minute or two off the warning time cost, and how much benefit does it lend?
Less esoteric (or more whimsical) calculations are in the mix as well: Lauterjung says he's seen families store balloon-rigged escape pods in their backyards, like those used to escape oil-rig emergencies. In case of flood or tsunami, a family could get in the pod and bob along the surface of the water, like James Bond at the end of The Spy Who Loved Me.
Everything has limits, Lauterjung says. "We cannot avoid every victim. The aim is to reduce them," he says. "There is no measure of how many you save."