In December 2004, off the coast of northern Sumatra, Indonesia, an earthquake measuring 9.0 on the Richter scale generated an angry and merciless tsunami that killed a staggering 200,000 people along the Pacific Basin. It was a day after Christmas.
Forty years earlier, in April 1964, off the coast of Alaska, a quake measuring 9.2 was recorded, but only 115 were killed.
It was two days before Easter.
(Some scientists believe the low casualty rate of the Alaska quake was due not only to the area's sparse population but also the fact that the region's inhabitants were at home for Good Friday.)
If God is in the details, then science is in the explanation.
Concerned scientists throughout the world are exploring the humanitarian, scientific, cultural and political ramifications of these horrific events (February EXPLORER).
AAPG members have discovered, through participation in several recent international conferences (both live and via video teleconferencing), ranging from such locals as Sri Lanka to Jakarta to Colombo, that immediate post-disaster needs of tsunami victims -- food, shelter, clothing and occupation -- were for the most part being met. The more pressing issue was coming up with models for future disaster responses, including:
- Documenting the frequency of previous tsunamis.
- Conducting hazard vulnerability assessments.
- Mitigating tsunami damage.
Specifically, by identifying ancient tsunami deposits in the geologic record -- far more precise than written or oral records -- members hope to compile a history of tsunamis that can be used to assess a region's future tsunami risk.
"What really triggered all this was reading in the EXPLORER about tsunamis," said Bob Morton, an AAPG member who's with the U.S. Geological Survey's Center for Coastal and Watershed Studies in St. Petersburg, Fla.
"Being a member and familiar with tsunamis, up until a year ago, I knew nothing about efforts in the United States about information and education," Morton said, "and I thought we should convey some information about that to our members."
"One frustrating thing about geology is knowing that something will eventually take place without the ability to accurately predict a time and place within a short time scale," said Richard Fritz, AAPG executive director. "We may not be able to predict the hour, but certainly we can respond within a short time."
"Too often, we think of humanitarian aid as food and housing and hygiene, but the reality of those in the hazard is that it is information that will help in the long run," he said. "Countries see us coming with assistance -- that is humanitarian -- but it isn't instantaneous. Education is number one priority.
"What the aid does is get those people above survival level."
Survival in a tsunami, all agree, depends on some common rules of engagement.
"When an earthquake shakes, people should start counting," Morton says. "If it goes on for about a minute, take action; seek higher ground. When water recedes is another sign. Originally, when water went out, it was a sign from nature that a big tsunami was coming."
Morton goes on to say that something as simple as vertical evacuation can help -- simply "just getting on the second floor" or moving inland.
"When you step back," he added, "the interior part of the countries were not all that effected."
There are things, he says, that countries could and should have done differently.
"If you take inundation studies, it will take out many businesses. Inundation studies. Where to locate schools, hospitals -- things like that."
Morton says there must be some understanding of the differences in planning for coastal and interior regions, citing the deadly decision of some countries in the area to remove dunes by resort area so tourists would have better views.
It is not, though, one size fits all.
"These countries are much more diffused," he concedes, "so there is no one way to do it."
While future study and preparedness are the goals of all, one of the bi-products of last December's devastation has been the humbling of the scientific community.
After last year's tsunami, governments and scientific organizations redoubled their efforts to set up early warning systems worldwide, though some experts believe that technology alone may not be enough to avert another disaster.
Look to the Animals
The reports citing the absence of animals in the tsunami death toll seemed apocryphal at first, but Morton is adamant.
"That animal business was real," he said. "In Yala National Park, the elephants left an hour before the tsunami hit. Birds flew, big animals left. Cows escaped. Goats were everywhere, wandering out on beaches. There were lots of dogs."
Morton attributes the phenomena to animals' ability to sense low frequency.
Humans, however, have to rely on more scientific information, and Morton isn't alone in his call for more low-tech preparedness. Walter C. Dudley, director of the Kalakaua Marine Education Center at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, says any technical information must be underpinned with effective public awareness campaigns and emergency response plans.
Specifically, Dudley told the National Geographic News: "Even if you have plenty of warning, people have to understand that this phenomenon is not something that you can watch. You see this happen with floods, because people don't understand the force of water. I think when it moves really fast it only takes about 12 to 14 inches (30 to 35 centimeters) to pick up a car."
Both seem to agree that some kind of warning system would have substantially reduced loss of life, but done nothing about physical damage.
More Than Technology
As it stands now, the Pacific Tsunami Warning System, as presently configured, is not designed to protect those countries in the Indian Ocean, like Sri Lanka.
PTWS uses coastal tide gauges and Deep-ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunamis (DART) sensors and buoys to detect oceanic changes. Sensors on the seafloor detect changes in water pressure and send the data to buoys anchored alongside. The buoys relay the information via satellite to tsunami warning centers.
According to some, though, the problem during tsunamis is often not one of detection and data, but of a simple telephone call.
"You need a set of protocols about how to warn people, such as sirens on the streets," said Bill McGuire, director of the Benfield Hazard Research Centre in London. "That's more critical than the science."
And this often hinges on something as obvious as a published phone number. According to [email protected], a seismograph designed to detect the earthquakes that cause tsunamis was installed on the Indonesian island of Java in 1996, but the data it collected never reached the central government in Jakarta because the telephone line had been disconnected in a 2000 office move.
Even those involved in the process seem to agree that the best technology in the world isn't enough.
Charles McCreery, director of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, said that while every effort was made to warn people and governments in the quake's path, "we don't have contacts in our address book for anybody in that part of the world."
All agree that getting those contacts is an integral part of mitigating future disasters.
"The number one priority is the Indian Ocean, as the prospect of another tsunami affecting the region is 100 percent," Morton said. "We just don't know when."