After the tsunamis

The main aftermath of Boxing Day is of course the millions of survivors, deeply traumatised, without their homes and possessions, short of food and clean water, and threatened by a host of diseases.  Second comes the spontaneous generosity of millions of ordinary, but more fortunate people, who within days deeply embarrassed mean-spirited politicians across the globe.  Then there are the aid agencies who responded to the unprecedented magnitude and breadth of the disaster.  How successful they will have been remains to be seen in the months ahead.  Finally, in the public arena, the media has effectively dropped the topic, and the death toll seems to have been capped at “more than 150 000”.  It will have been far, far greater than that, judging by the proportion of those reported missing to those whose death is confirmed, particularly for foreign tourists in the affected areas.  There comes a point, when the actual number becomes meaningless because of its size, as in the case of the Holocaust; 6 million Jews, maybe 20 million Russians.  There is of course an irresistible case for concentrating on the living and the future.  That is within the geoscientific sphere. 

That a tsunamis warning system failed to be established for the Indian Ocean when it was mooted can only be condemned in retrospect.  It is dreadful to contemplate the fact that Boxing Day did a lot of the work needed for risk assessment. It left kilometres-wide scars along all the affected coastlines, which geoscientists are already looking at to assess the mechanisms that either enhanced the power of the waves or, in a few cases, diminished them.  Geophysicists knew beforehand that submarine earthquakes of high magnitude affecting the Indian Ocean will likely occur only along the Sunda arc, so any future tsunamis will revisit the places already devastated this time.  There are environmental lessons too.  Coastlines stripped of their original mangrove swamps, for developments such as prawn farming, lost any protection.  Oddly, many environmentalists are decrying the destruction of habitats and pressuring for rehabilitation.  But this was a purely natural disaster, which over millennia will have happened again and again, before being restored to a temporary ecological balance.

So, it seems likely that measures to predict future Indian Ocean tsunamis will be put in place, with Thailand as the most likely centre.  Yet, seismologists fear that since the Sunda subduction system has failed once, after more than a century of muted activity, there may soon be further high-magnitude earthquakes.  Let us hope not.  As well as more rapid assessment of seismic magnitude, a warning system requires sea-floor pressure sensors to detect any major disturbance of ocean water, and careful modelling of how that is distributed by bathymetry.  Many fear that warnings that are not followed by actual events will induce the “crying wolf” response, and caution care in making warning.  The head of the Thai Meteorological service issued warnings following the announcement by the Pacific Tsunamis Warning Centre that a tsunamis had been unleashed in 1999.  Although it hit New Guinea and killed several thousand people there, it had no effect on Thailand, so he was dismissed.  He has campaigned for an Indian Ocean warning system since then, and has recently been reinstated.  When millions have been directly affected, and memory of the events of 26/12 will last for decades, it seems unlikely that “crying wolf” will result in much public outcry.

Warning system or not, the most pressing needs are for effective and swift communications in hazardous times, and for widespread education about what the hazards are and what to do when they are imminent.  Throughout the Pacific basin, even school children know what to do – head for high ground, especially if the sea goes down suddenly.  There have been fascinating reports of how the culture of ancient tribal people of the Andamans, probably living there for 20 thousand years or more, saved people.  A little girl saw ants swarming away from the sea on the fateful morning, and shouted to everyone to go inland.  That response may have been inculcated by previous tsunamis.  Communications across the affected region were indeed very poor in this case, largely because geoscientists who understood the risk when the magnitude and location of the earthquake became known did not know whom to contact in the Indian Ocean.  The answer is surely whoever issues weather forecasts, for most rural people have radios and listen to weather forecasts every day.

Sources:  Nature, 6, 20 and 27 January 2005 (see especially Schiermeier, Q. 2005.  On the trail of destruction. Nature, v. 433, p. 350-354.  This gives an outstanding, brief discussion of the processes involved in the disaster); New Scientist, 8 and 15 January 2005; Science, 14 January 2005 all contain substantial reports and some editorials.

A list of web links to maps, satellite images and other data relating to the Indian Ocean tsunamis has been assembled by David Stevens of the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs in Vienna.  After Friday 4th February, this can be accessed through UNOOSA’s  web page at

World Conference on Disaster Reduction: words or action?

From 17 to 21 January 2005, delegates representing 168 states met to discuss measures to mitigate the effects of major disasters that have natural causes in Kobe, Japan.  The conference declaration designates 10 years for resolving the issues around predicting, warning of and responding to such events (the Hyogo Framework for Action 2005-2015).  A New Scientist editorial (Words will never save us.  New Scientist, 29 January 2005, p. 3) expressed caution about the fine words, because the actions needed are, in many fields, not well established.  Kobe did indeed concretise the intergovernmental pledge to establish not only an Indian Ocean tsunamis warning network, but one that will eventually cover all maritime countries.  It also highlighted the success of the Drought Early Warning service, that has a strong focus on Africa.  Yet time and again, the UN, EU and well heeled governments have been alerted to this long-lived kind of disaster, only to fail to respond in a way that truly mitigates the affects.  Drought-stricken people are kept barely alive by food aid, only to await the next failure of rains without the infrastructure to assist themselves.  New Scientist highlights the common factor in failing to survive natural calamities – poverty.  One thing characterised the response to Boxing Day: ordinary people everywhere took decisive action to help, financially and practically, thereby embarrassing and shaming their own governments, the “great and good” multinational institutions, and many an attendee at conference such as Kobe.

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