Newswise — High-tech gadgets like strategically placed ocean pressure sensors could be valuable tools for protecting residents of tsunami-prone areas. But the biggest need, says Cornell University tsunami expert Philip Liu, is for sustained education so both residents and tourists understand the best ways to stay safe when a tsunami hits.

In January, Liu, a Cornell professor of civil and environmental engineering, led a team of scientists from the National Science Foundation's Tsunami Research Group and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) to Sri Lanka, where he observed the devastation from last December's powerful Indian Ocean tsunami. He summarizes the team's findings in a paper in the latest issue (June 10) of the journal Science.

An estimated 156,000 to 178,000 people in 11 countries died as a result of the ocean waves triggered by a massive earthquake off the west coast of northern Sumatra. Another 26,500 to 142,000 people remain unaccounted for.

Liu's team toured the hardest-hit coastal villages, measuring watermarks left behind by the waves and recording inundation distances. The team also took soil samples, recorded eyewitness accounts and made aerial surveys.

Back in Ithaca, Liu has begun to archive the data and use it to verify and tweak computer models of wave generation.

"The generation mechanism is still not clear," he said, adding that deep ocean pressure sensors (often cited as vital tools for early warning) are useful to a degree -- but because they are expensive and difficult to position, they may not be immediately practical. "We still have to do some more careful study."

In the meantime, Liu's message is one of lower-tech changes: protecting sand dunes and coral reefs, which provide a natural buffer from the sea; educating both residents and tourists in tsunami-prone communities about the signs of an approaching tsunami; and setting up a communication chain for earlier warning.

It may be economically impossible to require residents of small fishing villages to build to strict codes, Liu concedes. But he believes that with better regional communication and a few well-placed and solidly built shelters, casualties could be significantly reduced.

"I don't have a true good solution," he said. "The most important things are education and better coastline management. But the education has to be sustainable. We really have to make sure we put a lot of effort into it. I think if you put some thinking hats on you probably can come up with some answers.

"I hope it will never happen again," he added. "But my gut feeling is that it will. It's just a question of when."

Co-authors of the paper are Patrick Lynett of Texas A&M University, Bruce Jaffe and Robert Morton of the USGS, Hermann Fritz of the Georgia Institute of Technology, Brentwood Higman of the University of Washington, James Goff of the National Institute of Water and Atmosphere Research, New Zealand, and Costas Synolakis of the University of Southern California.

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Science (10-Jun-2005)