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Earth Observing System may help avert disaster

The world's immediate response to the horrific human tragedy of the Indian Ocean tsunami can be measured in dollars of emergency aid, military rescue missions and humanitarian relief efforts.

But the answer to the long-term question of how we prevent such catastrophes may take concrete form at a meeting in Brussels on Feb. 16. That is when senior officials of more than 50 nations will meet to approve a final draft of a 10-year plan to create an Earth Observing System _ an early-warning network for monitoring changes in the oceans and atmosphere that could affect life on this planet.

When I wrote about this subject last April, on the eve of a similar meeting in Tokyo, where a smaller number of nations drafted the framework agreement for the project, I quoted authorities as saying the potential benefits "include improving weather forecasts, reducing damage from oil spills and coastal storms, boosting the safety and economy of shipping and airlines, and raising the productivity of fisheries that huge populations depend on for food."

To that list, one can now add saving tens of thousands of lives.

Retired Navy Vice Adm. Conrad Lautenbacher, an undersecretary of commerce and head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), told me this week that a completed system of the kind being discussed in Brussels could provide real-time warning signals within 15 minutes of the start of a killer wave _ allowing evacuation of coastal areas and preparations at shore properties.

NOAA was criticized by Sen. Olympia Snowe, a Maine Republican, and others for failing to sound the alarm on this tsunami, even though seismographs picked up the evidence of the large underwater earthquake that triggered the wave.

One reason, Lautenbacher told me, is that the only sophisticated tsunami buoys, which measure sudden shifts in ocean level, are the six the United States has placed in the North Pacific. There are none in the Indian or Atlantic oceans. To cover all the potential tsunami sites would require 40 to 50, said Lautenbacher, who has been studying tsunamis since they were the subject of his university thesis.

The second, even larger problem, said Dr. John H. Marburger III, the director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, is the absence of "a network of scientists and government officials that can integrate the data and use it within their own countries." When the earthquake off the coast of Indonesia was detected, no one knew who needed to be called.

"That was embarrassing," Marburger said _ so much so that Snowe, the chairman of the Oceans, Fisheries and Coast Guard subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee, may hold hearings to focus on this lapse.

But the solution is more likely to come from Brussels than from Capitol Hill. "What we need," Marburger said, "is not just more hardware but receptor sites, with qualified people ready to listen and respond to the data."

No system will predict when a tsunami will be triggered. But the network being planned for the Earth Observing System, Marburger says, will be useful in mitigating the damage caused not only by tsunamis, but also by many other natural disasters: tropical storms that cause flooding and landslides; algae blooms that contaminate streams; and migrations of bacteria-carrying birds.

Just as the world manages to put aside political, religious and ethnic rivalries to help the victims of this disaster, so the scientists and environmentalists meeting in Brussels will have an opportunity to show their foresight in making such calamities less likely. The U.S. leadership in this international effort is a source of pride for the nation.

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With far too great frequency, I find myself writing postscripts to this column to note the passing of important role models in politics. Today, there are two more. Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress, lived a good, full life and died at 80. She was a free spirit, spunky and combative when she needed to be, but blessed with a laugh that could light up a room.

Robert Matsui, the congressman from Sacramento who died much too young at 63, was a man devoid of guile _ respected by colleagues of both parties. As a Japanese-American, he had suffered the stings of racism, but he was unembittered, and admired for his expertise and good judgment on trade, Social Security and many other issues. With his wife, Doris, who worked in the Clinton White House and was involved in all of his campaigns, he formed one of the great political teams of this era.

David Broder is a Washington Post columnist. His e-mail address is

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