Friday, December 30, 2011

Lessons to learn from 2011 earthquakes

Natural hazards, such as earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, and global climate-change pose unremitting threats to our young, 10,000-year-old, civilization. There are ample evidences to map a complete profile of vulnerabilities, which we have been facing in the past. The devastations of Acehnese and Thai coasts in 2004, of Kashmir and New Orleans in 2005, of southwest Java in 2006, of Sumatra again in 2007, western Sichuan and Myanmar in 2008, of Haiti in 2010 and of Japan in 2011, comprise an unremitting event of death and destruction.

In some of these events the warning signs were known to exist; for example, New Orleans and Port au Prince, which had long been recognised as a catastrophe waiting to happen, but somehow even that awareness has had no effect! Similarly, there are several places in the world, for example SE Asia, where the knowledge about earthquakes is still in its infancy. This has caused colossal loss to life and property. For example in Kashmir and Aceh, these tragic examples, in which basic scientific ignorance and the inability to translate the acquired knowledge into timely planned action clearly shows the challenges earth science faces today.

The recent earthquake in Japan and the tsunami that followed it, once again highlighted and simultaneously warned us about our ignorance in understanding the dynamic earth processes. Though, there were fewer casualties, but, the scientific information about the earthquake potential and its associated hazards were grossly ignored or simply not put into an effective action plan. Japan is probably the only country with a sophisticated earthquake instrumentation, knowledge and preparedness to tackle these hazards; however, the bitter truth remains that they have failed to warn people about events of such magnitude, that many said was a surprise, but, in reality, this had been forecasted by many scientists. It therefore, gives us an opportunity to review the status of earthquake research in all countries, which are at the verge of earthquake disasters.

Before the awareness about a possible threat, which can be posed by tsunamis dawned on people at large, especially in the wake of a number of recent tsunamis, there was almost no concern to map underwater faults, potentially because we were ignorant of the consequences it can have. However, the need was revived and Japan, by now has 50 observatories offshore to understand the sea-floor faults. This number is extremely less, compared to 8,700 on land. But, many nations have none or a few such stations to map deadly faults, mostly on sea-floor. It is therefore, imperative to map active faults on ocean floor and deploy the geophysical instruments to measure the deformation as accurately as possible. This is crucial for our safety and welfare, which should be our priority.

It may take several decades to understand/predict the complicated tectonics associated with earthquakes, before we can successfully warn people in advance. However, the effects can be minimized by educating societies. This practice has played a huge role in saving lives, for example in Japan. There are reports, where a principle of a school, demolished a wall to allow the students to freely run to higher altitudes, before the arrival of a tsunami. All those people were subsequently saved. However, there are also cases where people went to the protective tsunami wall to see its arrival, thereby, ignoring its dangerous impact. This happens because people were NOT told in advance that the tsunami waves can reach enormous heights.

One thing however is clear; which is that dangers and hazards associated with a tsunami or an earthquake can be much bigger than what we anticipate and therefore prior preparations should be made for the same.


Afroz Ahmad Shah