We arrived in Bankok, Thailand on the 26th of December at about 12:00AM last year and when we awoke in the morning people were standing around TVs trying to make sense of news about the tsunami. It was clear from the TV images that the waves were monstrous and destructive, but it was initially hard to fathom how many people were involved. Thais in Bankok desperately tried to reach their relatives in the South. As more footage of waves crashing through beach towns came through and people ominously failed to contact their families, the tension grew. We logged on to CNN and there the only news of the tsunami was a story about one American who was possibly lost on one of the islands1. The family had mined some FBI connections to track their son and publicly pleaded to the president to mobilize efforts to help find him on the island of Phi Phi. They enlisted a senator in their search, who commented on her limited ability to help:
"What's really frustrating is this is the 21st century and you would think there would be some kind of communications . . . some kind of direct link from someone on the ground in [Phi Phi]"
Unbeknownst to the senator, the communication gap that frustrated her wasn't a 21st century technology glitch that inspires crankiness in all of us but the fundamental effect of an abrupt 20 metre vertical displacement of the ocean floor. The geology of the 9.15 earthquake and resulting tsunami in the Indian Ocean is difficult to imagine -- even if you were there in Thailand, India, or Sri Lanka. The further away you were from South East Asia the longer it took to realize what was going on, based on the steady stream of e-mails we got weeks after the initial earthquake. Some of it was the political process. President Bush was on vacation and took days to say anything.
Aside from distance and politics, the fact is that the communications infrastructure was literally wiped out, making communications logistics not so obviously impossible. Even watching natural disaster extravaganzas like "Deep Impact" or "The Day After Tommorrow", would hardly prepare one for the destruction. The fault slippage generated by the earthquake covered an area of 1300 by 100 kilometers. The energy released by the earthquake was estimated to be the equivalent of about 475 megatons of TNT -- 23,000 Nagasaki atomic bombs. The earth wobbled on its axis.
Waves generated from a large earthquake travel very quickly across the open ocean with speeds up to 500-1000 kph. They are short waves (one or two metres) on the ocean that then slow down when they approach land. There, the wave -- which is technically not so much of a wave, but rather a wall -- gains height. The resulting walls of water are extraordinarily powerful. Predicting their landfall is trickier then it may seem.
The Sumatra earthquake was initially measured as a 8.1-8.5 earthquake, then later revised upward to 9.15 using the moment magnitude scale rather than the seismogram amplitude (Ms) measurement. The difference between the size of the actual earthquake and the smaller initial measurement affected the tsunami predictions.
Cries for a tsunami warning system could be interpreted to indicate that this will solve the problem. It's true that before the tsunami there was a warning system implemented in the Pacific ocean but nothing in place for the Indian ocean where tsunamis were considered a rarer event. Warning systems are now being devised. The newest one is being designed by German researchers, who, relative to the Americans and Japanese, are newcomers to the field. The German system employs buoys that monitor surface conditions and relay this information along with sea bed information via satellite to a receiving station. Two of these buoys were installed in November. Tidal gauges will also eventually be engineered to monitor the data. These are part of the Global Sea Level Observing System (GLOSS) used in climate change studies. They are being upgraded to measure sea level information that will be useful to monitor tsunamis. There are also traditional communication systems based on seismic data that are now improved to forward warnings after earthquakes to countries vulnerable to tsunamis.
The improvements cannot come quickly enough. Der Spiegel reports that the stress of the Australian Plate beneath the continental shelf is higher then ever and the two recent earthquakes seem to have increased the tension since they only affected a small length of the border between the plates. But the 21st century communications system the senator laments may well be illusory.
We know that a warning system will never stop a hurricane or a tsunami. The warnings will help those who are capable and willing to heed them. Similiarly, during the rescue, technology will certainly improve the odds for many, though not all. But will it perform to the specs we expect? As with our all disaster, the response is as likely to depend on our neighbors as the technology -- on island or off; to whit, our neighbors judgement, instincts, and dare we say "emotional intelligence" will abet our survival or peril. These are the qualities in humans that sometimes seem disconcertingly unchanged since we all hunched over those first sticks trying to get sparks to fly. Sure there are enough heros, geniuses, and cats rescued from trees these days to buoy our spirits during the evening headline news. But in catastrophes, the weaknesses as well as the strengths of our fellow humans are evident, and as important as the "technological communications" systems. We will be as dependent on the chain of humans relaying the messages as we are on the physical limitations of technology -- even if the next tsunami leaves the infrastructure linked.
There were remarkable heroes in the tsunami last year. Some of the survivors stories are extraordinarily well told in the recent New York Times article "The Day the Sea Came", by Barry Bearak, which describes the turmoil and human toll of the event through the eyes of a few survivors. Many more stories we will never know, as those heroes perished with hundreds of thousands of others. If only technology could have saved them.
1The news must have gotten more in sync with the reality in time because CNN recently won the an award for best coverage for its stories on the tsunami.