Indonesia struggles to prepare amid warnings of 2nd massive tsunami

09 January 2007 | 06:21 Code : 12356 Geoscience events
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Two years after an earthquake off western Indonesia unleashed a monster tsunami....

Two years after an earthquake off western Indonesia unleashed a monster tsunami, scientists expect the same fault to rupture again within the next few decades -- and this town stands to take the full force of the waves. They predict a large swath of Sumatra island's densely populated coast just south of the tsunami-hit area will be pounded by a giant wall of water. "All this area in red will disappear," Padang Mayor Fauzi Bahar said, pointing at a satellite map on his office wall showing the likely reach of the waves into the town. The low-lying town of 900,000 people has started mapping out evacuation routes and educating the public, but all the same, authorities fear up to 60,000 will die, unable to outrun the waves even if they get a speedy warning and flee. "The people will be washed away," Bahar said. On the morning of Dec. 26, 2004, the most powerful earthquake in four decades lifted the seabed west of Sumatra by several yards, propelling waves up to two stories high at jetliner speeds across the Indian Ocean to smash into coastal communities, beach resorts and towns in 12 nations. In hardest-hit Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka and India, the waves surged miles inland, tossing ships, swallowing entire villages and leaving behind a blasted landscape of concrete foundations and rubble littered with tens of thousands of bodies. On Sumatra island -- home to more than half the tsunami's nearly 230,000 dead and missing -- volunteers and emergency workers took three months to recover all the corpses and bury them in mass graves. Warnings of another tsunami-spawning quake are adding urgency to efforts to establish a warning system covering the Indian Ocean rim like the network of high-tech buoys in the Pacific that alerts Japan, the United States and other nations of sudden tidal changes. The worst-affected countries have begun installing sirens on threatened coasts and three buoys with sensors capable of detecting waves generated by seismic activity are in the water, but the network is several years from completion, officials say. Making sure the system works from end-to-end is a "daunting task," said Curt Barrett at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is helping set it up. Once the warning goes out, people have to know what to do," he said. "All of this information is useless if it doesn't get to the person down on the beach." The warnings of another tsunami are based on more than a decade of research by respected U.S. geologist Kerry Sieh and a team of scientists on a section of the fault just south of the part that ruptured in 2004. His conclusions are shared by scientists at other universities and government research institutions. The fault, which runs the length of the west coast of Sumatra about 125 miles offshore, is the meeting point of the Eurasian and Pacific tectonic plates that have been pushing against each other for millions of years, causing huge stresses to build up. Using historical accounts of earlier quakes, measurements of coral uplift and data from a network of Global Positioning System transmitters on nearby islands, Sieh, from the California Institute of Technology, has found a pattern of large earthquakes about every 230 years, with the last major ones in 1797 and in 1833. The 2004 jolt, as well as another strong quake on the same fault three months later that killed 1,000 people on nearby Nias island, has loaded even more stress, Sieh said. "We are not saying the quake is going to happen tomorrow or next week, but on the other hand we don't want people to forget about it and be lax," he said. "I'd be surprised if it were delayed much beyond 30 years."

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