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Case study

Underpinning the Indian Tsunami early warning system

Client: National Institute of Ocean Technology

November 17, 2021

Sonardyne Bottom Pressure Recorders (BPR) have been at the heart of the Indian Tsunami Early Warning System (ITEWS) since its establishment in 2007. Based on Sonardyne’s workhorse Compatt transponder, our BPR instrument was developed in direct response to the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami.

The challenge

30% of India’s population (ca. 420 million) live on its 7,500 km long coast and are consequently highly vulnerable to devastating Tsunamis such as the one that occurred on 26th December 2004. This killed over 230,000 people in the Indian Ocean region, with 10,749 confirmed deaths in India and another 5,640 missing. While seismometers are an important component of Tsunami warning, only Bottom Pressure Recorders can detect the passage of an actual Tsunami. Indeed, Tsunami warnings based purely on seismic data have the potential to produce false alarms, which are costly in wasted evacuations and undermine public confidence.

The essential elements of a Tsunami Detection System (TDS) are:

1. The capability to detect a Tsunami – While a Tsunami may arrive at the coast many metres high, in open ocean they pass almost imperceptibly and may only be a few centimetres in height, although this elevation in sea-level can be maintained for as long as 20 minutes.

2. The functionality to provide this detection ashore with sufficient warning time – A Tsunami travels (in ms-1) at roughly the square root of the depth of the water (in m) multiplied by the acceleration due to gravity (9.81ms-1): In short, it travels faster in deeper water, so for example, in 1,000m of water it will be travelling at over 1,100 kmh-1. In India’s case, the Andaman-Sumatra and Makran subduction zones are located within a few hours Tsunami travel time of the Indian coastline

3. High reliability in delivering the detection information ashore – BPRs, as the name implies are deployed on the seabed, so rely on robust telemetry, which has to operate even in poor weather conditions continuously 24/7/365.


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The solution

The catastrophic 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami led Sonardyne’s founder, John Partridge, to initiate development of a variant of the Compatt 5 seabed transponder to detect a Tsunami passing overhead.

With an extensive track record in the oil and gas industry, this instrument was ideal to form the heart of a TDS requiring very high reliability. Nevertheless, integration of a Digiquartz pressure sensor to enable the Compatt 5 as a BPR, required significant development. This particularly involved reduction of the power required for continuous operation on battery power. Similarly, a new transceiver with low quiescent power, capable of long endurance deployment on a surface telemetry buoy, also had to be developed.

Development was so rapid that when India’s National Institute of Ocean Technology (NIOT) in Chennai, started looking for a TDS in 2005, it was ready for competitive field trial. Sonardyne’s solution was subsequently selected in 2006, leading to deployment of operational systems in the Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea in 2007.

In normal operation the Digiquartz pressure sensor in the BPR continuously measures water pressure and this data is stored every 15 seconds. The pressure data is then acoustically transmitted every hour to the surface, where an acoustically baffled transceiver, mounted beneath a buoy, receives this data. The buoy is linked to NIOT’s Mission Control Centre (MCC) by satellite communications, so that not only can data be transmitted ashore quickly, but also the health of the BPR is remotely monitored and, if necessary, reconfigured.

Embedded in the BPR is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Tsunami detection algorithm, which compares each measurement to the predicted pressure [Figure]. This predicted pressure uses the previous 3-hour history to take account of tide, weather and temperature variation. Should the difference between the two exceed a programmable default threshold of 3 cm for two consecutive samples, the BPR switches into Tsunami Alert Mode, which then initiates a sequence of data transmissions for the next few hours.

Sonardyne’s Wideband acoustics are central to the functioning of the system, and with the subsequent replacement of the Compatt 5 with Compatt 6, Sonardyne’s latest TDS offering is equipped with the most robust and efficient wideband acoustic telemetry available.

The results

Soon after the first batch of BPRs were deployed, on the 12th September 2007, the system detected its first Tsunami, which was triggered by an 8.2 magnitude event off the coast of Sumatra at 04° 30’ S 101° 18’ E. How the Tsunami generated was tracked across three of the Indian Tsunami Buoys (ITB) is shown in the gallery.

Located between 1,760 – 2,300 km away, all three stations recorded the seismic ground wave arrival between 7 – 12 mins after the event started. Between 2 – 3 hrs later, the wave itself, which was less than 10 cm in height, passed over the three BPRs, indicating that it had travelled at between 740 – 800 km/h over this period.

Today, Sonardyne’s TDS continues to deliver bottom pressure and event data to NIOT, which is responsible for delivering sea-level data to the Indian Tsunami Early Warning Center (ITEWC) at the Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Sciences (INCOIS) in Hyderabad. In 2014, NIOT reported that system data availability had been 98.83%, with a Mean Time Between Failure (MTBF) of 1.62 years, noting that the majority of these failures were due to external impacts, including weather and human interference with the surface buoys, resulting in damage to surface communication and data systems.


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