On Sunday December 26, 2004, at 0h58, the worst earthquake in 40 years reached 9.3 on the Richter scale and caused the 10 meter wave of the “Boxing Day Tsunami”. The waters devastated the Indonesian province of Aceh, killing 170,000 there. Within 90 minutes they reached the southern beaches of Thailand, killing another 5,000+. In all, some 230,000 people died.
Early Warning Signals
In 2004, there was no global monitoring and warning system that could identify the threat and alert populations of the tsunami trajectory and time of impact. Today, a global network of 60 nigh-tech buoys helps measure the size, direction and speed of tsunami waves. The time of impact and the size of the floods are predicted based on mathematical models and past experience.
Timely information is critical. In 2004, the Indian town of Madras was hit 2 hours after the quake but the authorities had not been informed because information was only shared every 4 to 5 hours. Today, 140 seismometers are present along the Indian Ocean coasts and three regional alert centers (in Indonesia, Australia and in India) are tasked with informing all relevant countries within 15 minutes. It took 12 minutes for news of the 2012 tsunami to be relayed.
There is a cost however. It is estimated that the maintenance of the system alone costs up to $100 million a year.
Education is Key
Despite the improvements in technology and communication, risks remain and human factors may be to blame. While the 2012 tsunami alert arrived in time, most of the population of Aceh (Indonesia) tried to flee by car which blocked the entire town. The town was saved and the population survived because the announced disaster did not materialize.
The population is also tired of hearing about tsunamis and often resists prevention measures – even criticizing education programs in schools and preparedness measures implemented by the authorities. Such attitudes were also present in some of the Japanese areas affected by the Fukushima tsunami – the protection walls proved insufficient. In New Orleans, people have also rebuilt their homes in zones considered at risk.
A new Era of Global Vulnerability
Until 2004, we experienced half a century with no major tsunami disasters. As a result, coastal areas have seen major developments in infrastructure and population growth – particularly in Asia. In the last decade, the two important tsunamis have caused major disasters (Boxing say in 2004 and Fukushima in 2011) in the region. This is no coincidence, most earthquake activity occurs along subduction zones. Particularly along the “Pacific Ring of Fire”.
Human activity, often related to development and associated progress is partly to blame. The destruction of “mangroves” increases the vulnerability of coastal areas to tsunami waves by removing an important buffer zone.
Rising sea-levels are another aggravating factor. Water levels are now 30 centimeters higher then a century ago along the New York coast. The unfortunate timing of Hurricane Sandy coinciding with a high-tide resulted in massive floods in New York and New Jersey.
Technology can certainly help but will never be sufficient to overcome the shortcomings of human nature. The 2004 Tsunami in Aceh that killed 170,000 also allowed for the reconciliation of the authorities and rebel forces in order to rebuild their community. This is the kind of cooperation necessary to overcome the global challenges that are upon humanity – climate change, poverty, inequality… Let us hope that we will not need a global disaster to start moving in that direction.