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Is Australia tsunami-proof? -

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Is Australia tsunami-proof?

Reporter: Jonathan Harley

EMMA ALBERICI: Well, could this happen in Australia? Experts are divided on whether something of
such magnitude could hit a heavily populated stretch of the Australian coast, but they agree that
warning systems can alert communities when a tsunami is on the way. So why weren't the thousands of
people in the path of this devastating wave warned? Jonathan Harley reports on the science of how
this tsunami happened.

JONATHAN HARLEY: In Sri Lanka's historic port city of Galle, the distinction between waterway and
city street had all but disappeared. The mind-boggling scale of this tsunami and the sheer
devastation came into sharp and shocking focus.

TED BRYANT (UNIVERSITY OF WOOLONGONG): It's one of the biggest earthquakes ever recorded, and it's
generated tsunami that have gone across the Indian Ocean.

PHIL CUMMINS (SEISMOLOGIST, GEOSCIENCE AUSTRALIA): There is no historical record of a tsunami of
this size occurring in the Indian Ocean before, so certainly it's the big one for the Indian Ocean.

JONATHAN HARLEY: As people clung for their lives and many lost the fight, it was clear that this
tsunami took coastal Sri Lanka by utter surprise. But experts say it didn't need to be this way.

TED BRYANT: It was 100 per cent preventable - just no organisation, no country took the lead, no
organisation decided to get countries together and do the homework.

JONATHAN HARLEY: The earthquake which triggered this tsunami was caused by the movement of tectonic
plates to our north. The fault between the Australian-Indian and Eurasian plates is well known for
its activity, but this was the big one. The plates shifted along a 1,000-kilometre stretch of
fault, releasing a massive shockwave across the ocean floor. What followed was a 10m-tall wall of
water surging across the Indian Ocean, rising as it approached the coast and devastating towns and
villages in its path.

TED BRYANT: Great earthquakes are anything about 8.5 or greater on the Richter scale, and this one,
apparently it's up to 9 now, and that's an enormous size.

JONATHAN HARLEY: It's four decades since the world has seen tsunamis of this scale. The coastline
of Chile was hit in 1960 and, four years later, Alaska was struck. Both involved huge earthquakes
and waves, but they brought only a fraction of the destruction of this tsunami. Smaller in size,
but still possessing deadly force, the tsunami which hit Papua New Guinea's West Sepik province in
1998 claimed more than 2,000 lives. In 1998, as now, people received no warning. But it is possible
to know when a tsunami is on the way.

TED BRYANT: No matter where an earthquake occurs in the Pacific, there's a warning put out.

JONATHAN HARLEY: After the tsunamis which hit Chile and Alaska in the 1960s, a Pacific Ocean
tsunami warning system was put in place. Sensors monitor movement on the ocean floor. Information
is relayed, via transponders on the surface and satellite, to a tsunami warning centre. The system
can even automatically ring home phones with a recorded warning message. But because it's been seen
mostly as a Pacific Ocean phenomenon, there's no such system in place for the Indian Ocean. Author
on tsunamis and Associate Dean of Science at the University of Wollongong Ted Bryant believes
that's now cost thousands of lives.

TED BRYANT: We know within the nearest minute when the wave will come into any shoreline. We don't
have that system in the Indian Ocean. It would be dead simple to set it up. There shouldn't have
been one life lost in that tsunami. We should have had a warning system.

JONATHAN HARLEY: Seismologists will debate what all this means for Australia. One suggestion is
that a tremor off the coast of Tasmania on Thursday may have been connected to the devastating
south Asian tsunami. A quake measuring 8.1 on the Richter scale was centred 400 kilometres north of
Macquarie Island and, in the process, triggered a small tsunami.

PHIL CUMMINS: This is a phenomenon that's happened in several locations throughout the Pacific
basin. So it's not just a one-off thing. It will happen perhaps with a frequency - a very low
frequency. It might not happen again for another 500 years, or it could happen possibly sooner than
that.

JONATHAN HARLEY: The uncertainty is not where the tsunamis will occur but with what force. In the
wake of the south Asia disaster, Professor Bryant believes Australia is not safe from a tsunami
hitting its shores.

TED BRYANT: One of the areas that will have a great earthquake is the Alpine Fault in New Zealand,
and the Alpine Fault runs through the north island and comes down the west coast of the south
island. If the epicentre of the next earthquake was in the ocean, we would have tsunami generated
that would then cross the Tasman Sea. They would reach Sydney in two to three hours, and I doubt
very much if we have a warning system set up that would give us any notification.

JONATHAN HARLEY: Others are more cautious about the scale of any threat.

PHIL CUMMINS: I can't say the eastern seaboard's completely free of this risk, but it's far lower,
far lower on the eastern seaboard of Australia.

JONATHAN HARLEY: Whatever the risks, all the experts agree that the best guard against mass
disaster is an early warning system that tells people to move before it's too late.

EMMA ALBERICI: Jonathan Harley with that report.