Swiss expert spearheads quake surveillance

Switzerland has earthquake equipment measuring the whole country Keystone

The head of the Swiss Seismological Service says early-warning systems are needed to prevent disasters like the Asian tsunami from happening again.

This content was published on January 17, 2005 - 19:48

As the World Conference on Disaster Reduction gets underway in Japan, Domenico Giardini talks to swissinfo about the challenges facing the international community following the catastrophe.

Millions of people were caught off-guard on December 26, when an undersea quake off the coast of Sumatra sent killer waves crashing into coastlines across southeast Asia.

Here in Switzerland, the national seismological service relies on a network of monitoring stations to localise and measure the magnitude of earthquakes deep beneath the country’s surface.

The organisation also forms part of a wider, worldwide network of observation centres, including the European-Mediterranean Seismological Centre and the Federation of Digital Broadband Seismograph Networks (FDSN).

Giardini, who heads both the Swiss service and the FDSN, says local and international alert systems play an integral role in saving lives.

swissinfo: How does the international community of seismologists work together to monitor the earth’s activity?

Domenico Giardini: Before the earthquake on December 26, we had two meetings on our agenda – this week’s World Conference on Disaster Reduction in Kobe, Japan, and the 3rd Earth Observation Summit, which is due to take place next month in Brussels.

Originally, the meeting in Kobe aimed to come up with a ten-year action plan to improve the gathering and distribution of information about our planet. But after the quake off the coast of Sumatra, the focus of the meeting’s agenda shifted to include a special session on the tsunami. Countries will also be discussing the creation of early-warning systems in the Indian Ocean, as well as the Mediterranean and the Atlantic.

swissinfo: How would such a system work?

D.G.: We would have to create a network of seismic sensors and install ways to measure underwater landslides, which can also cause major tidal waves. We would also employ instruments that can measure the energy of such waves. That said, a global-warning system is not enough… local-alert systems also need to be established to keep at-risk populations informed about seismic activity.

swissinfo: What is Switzerland’s role in the seismological field?

D.G.: In cooperation with the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), we work a lot with developing countries, such as Armenia, Georgia, Chile and Colombia, to maintain earthquake-surveillance systems. We’re also in the process of establishing a national monitoring network in Tajikistan, as well as a surveillance system at Egypt’s Aswan Dam.

We’re also studying the possibility of providing similar support to other developing nations and we’re looking into ways of improving the protection of the Swiss abroad. For example, an automatic-alert network using the Short Messaging System (SMS) might be an option.

swissinfo: What gaps need to be filled here in Switzerland?

D.G.: The alarm systems and protection measures against natural disasters are very advanced in this country. But we lack ways of preventing tidal waves on our big lakes from causing serious damage… and that danger exists. For example, the 1601 earthquake in Lucerne caused waves that were two to three metres high.

Tidal waves can also be caused by landslides, and cities like Geneva and Zurich, which lie at the end of large lakes, could experience major damage should a landslide occur.

swissinfo-interview: Frédéric Burnand

Key facts

The Swiss Seismological Service monitors earthquakes and sounds the alarm on seismological activity throughout the country.
Every five years, it also conducts safety inspections of buildings and critical infrastructures, such as dams and nuclear power stations.
In addition, the service works to educate the public and carries out research into earthquakes and the shifting of tectonic plates.

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