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Europe

Could it Happen Here?

Seen from Europe, the recent tsunamis hit countries half a world away. But European experts say it would be wrong to think that a tsunami couldn't happen here, and say an EU-wide early warning system is needed.

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The Galileo satellite could help warn against tsunamis in Europe

The legendary city of Atlantis is said to have fallen victim to a massive wave in the Mediterranean Sea that swallowed an entire culture. While Atlantis is a myth, the earthquake zones beneath the Mediterranean are reality, even if thousands of people live seemingly worry-free on the coasts of Greece, Italy and Spain.

Scientists such as Dieter Kelletat, Professor of Geography at the University of Essen-Duisburg, have long warned of the danger on Europe's doorstep. Kelletat calls up the image of two ice fields that grind against each other until eventually, one sheet of ice slides over the other. The top ice field pushes the other so far down that water begins to bubble up between the two.

Large danger zone

Sardinien, Blick aufs Mittelmeer

Italy's southern coastal regions are in the Mediterranean danger zone

It's a similar situation along the line where the European and African plates meet. Each year, the African plate shifts around two centimeters to the north. There are frequent earthquakes originating at the intersection of the two plates, with the danger zone stretching from Morocco in the west, across Italy and Greece to Turkey in the east.

"In the Mediterranean region, tsunamis are a threat to all the coasts, and tsunamis have already happened across the region," Kelletat said. "But there is no tsunami warning system, and there are still false impressions about the risk tsunamis pose to the region."

As the risks are not limited to a single country, the European Parliament in Strasbourg is now focusing its attention on the creation of a Europe-wide early warning system.

Warning from outer space

The parliamentarians are placing their hopes on the Galileo satellite navigation system, which is able to register even the smallest of changes. But a "traditional" early warning system would also help. According to Kelletat's estimations, the EU would only need to invest €20 million ($26 million) for an effective system. Spain, Italy and Greece are among the countries demanding decisive action.

"The important thing is that we have a unified European policy that can coordinate everything," said Spanish EU parliamentarian (MEP) Javier Pomes. "The risk of such a catastrophe cannot be borne by one country alone. In this area, we have to cooperate."

The shock from seeing pictures of the tsunami catastrophe in Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand galvanized the parliament in Strasbourg such that the largest factions have already worked together to draw up a resolution.

Briefbombe gegen Hans-Gert Poettering

German MEP Hans-Gert Pöttering

"We now have to pursue this resolution very seriously," said German MEP Hans Gert Pöttering (photo). "I am asking that the Commission now take the necessary steps to find solutions to improve the immediate situation, and I'm happy to say that we have a large consensus on this question."

Panicked reactions?

The consensus is not as wide as it could be, however. Some MEPs are warning of scare tactics. Others argue that an early warning system would be ineffective in the Mediterranean, saying that in such a small sea, the warning times would also be too small -- an argument rejected by MEPs from the most endangered countries.

"Look at the coasts of Sicily, Calabria, Sardinia," said Italian MEP Vittorio Prodi. "For me, this early warning system is a must. I think that even half an hour is enough time to save thousands of people."

Prodi knows what he's talking about. In 1908, a large tsunami destroyed large parts of the coastal region his family comes from. He is fighting to give the people who live along Italy's southern coasts now a chance of survival.

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