Boxing Day Tsunami: Malaysia ditches Tsunami buoys for enhanced tide gauges [NSTTV]

KUALA LUMPUR: System flaws and high maintenance costs have led to the decommissioning of all three of the country's deep-water tsunami buoys, said Malaysian Meteorological Department (MetMalaysia).

Its director-general Muhammad Helmi Abdullah announced the complete phasing out of the component that is part of the Malaysia Tsunami Early Warning System (SAATNM) in an interview with the New Straits Times late last month.

After years of managing challenges to sustain the buoys, the department shifted its focus to the existing sea level (tidal) gauges across coastal areas to detect deadly waves and collective data shared from neighbouring nations instead in disaster preparation, Helmi said.

The tide gauge system provides data collection that is more consistent and near real-time with a vast network that spans across critical zones within the region.

A total of 25 tide gauges are spread across Malaysia's coastal areas. Two cover the areas that the last tsunami hit placed specifically at USM Cemacs Jetty (Pulau Pinang) and Awana Porto Malai Jetty (Langkawi, Kedah), said Helmi.

When there is a systematic and drastic change in the sea level at a specific tidal point, MetMalaysia will use the information received by these tide gauges for disaster response and issuing rapid alerts out to nearby communities.

Additionally, information on sea levels are also received from an external network of tidal gauges and tsunami buoys in neighbouring countries for better preparation.

He said the previous buoys had functionality issues and were sensitive, resulting in them being unable to distinguish between a real tsunami wave and a normal ocean wave.

"The tide gauge system allows us to ensure that a false alarm would not occur as it is able to measure actual changes in sea level in the event of an earthquake as compared to the buoys which are located in the open ocean," he added.

Helmi did not disclose the number of false alarms detected, but assured that the current system is safer, more economical and effective compared to its predecessor.

"On the cost side, maintenance is estimated to be between RM220,000 and RM250,000 per station.

"This is a significant reduction compared to the buoy system, which incurred an approximate cost of RM500,000 per service trip, excluding spare parts, he said.

The maintenance process of the previous buoy system, he said, was arduous as it involved the deployment of large ships and working with international fisheries and coast guard authorities to navigate the territorial waters involved.

He said the decision to better monitor tsunami events did not come on a whim as MetMalaysia based it on studies and spoke to counterparts in Indonesia and Philippines (including Japan for their expertise) in detail before collectively coming to a conclusion.

Nineteen years ago, over 230,000 people perished on Dec 26, 2004 in what has been described as the deadliest natural event in modern history, a disaster many also called the killer 'Boxing Day Tsunami'.

Aceh province in Sumatra recorded the highest death toll with 163,795 people, followed by Sri Lanka (35,399), India (16,389), Thailand (8,345), Somalia (298) and Malaysia (68).

Before the deadly disaster, there was no system to track tectonic plate movements under the sea.

Learning from the catastrophic incident, Malaysia reinforced its strategic planning together with regional counterparts in disaster monitoring a year later with the setup of SAATNM.

It was a momentous effort to provide Malaysians with at least an hour's warning through real-time monitoring and communication channels.

In the event of earthquakes in excess of 7.5 on the Richter scale, the system will trigger alerts through sirens, SMS, and loudspeakers, involving various disaster management agencies.

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