Tuesday, December 28, 2004

The Earth heaved while the Seas boiled.

I am staggered and very much saddened by the calamity that has struck Indonesia, Thailand, Burma, Sri Lanka, and India to name the most adversely affected countries. Even Somalia in Africa has felt some impact from this disaster.

In the Aceh province of Indonesia over 27,000 people have been reported dead. Sri Lanka another 17,000 are dead. Arthur C. Clarke[Rendezvous with Rama and 2001:A Space Odyssey] lives in Sri Lanka and he reports that some of the people who work for him can not be contacted. A train in India with over 1,000 people traveling aboard it was swept up by the water, derailed, and twisted like so much rubber. Death toll is over 55,000 and will probably climb higher.

The wall of water in some areas was reported at being over ten meters high. The cause of this was a 9.0 magnitude earthquake some five to six miles beneath the Earth surface who’s epicenter was 250 kilometers south east of the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Sumatra itself as a result of the earthquake may have had its location shifted by over 100 feet southwest. The Mirror out of the UK equates this to England shifting 50ft north. Other scientists say since the Indian plate submerges under the Burma plate, the island heights might have been increased.

What is magnitude? Originally a scale developed in 1934 to address measuring earthquakes of one area of California, the Richter Scale has become a commonplace measurement even though it has been partially supplanted. An 8.0 magnitude earthquake is equivalent to detonating six million tons of TNT. Using the Richter scale, magnitude 9.0 means this earthquake had ten times the destructive force of a magnitude 8.0 earthquake. And the final magnitude number will not be known until more data is analyzed, it may go up or it may go down. There have also been many aftershocks[30 to date] of lesser magnitude measured. While not as powerful, they are strong enough to bring down buildings already weakened and possibly kill even more people.

The magnitude of this earthquake just might have had a global impact. Some at the US Geological Survey and other seismologists around the world think the energy released by this earthquake was so massive, the Earth itself may have wobbled on its axis. It could have also shortened the length of each day, one figure I have heard is three microseconds. Though I must note Luna is also slowing the Earth down, so I doubt it will be that noticeable. Unless you own an atomic clock that is, wonder how one adjusts an atomic clock?

How can an island, especially one as large as Sumatra, get shifted by an earthquake? Sumatra lies at the intersection of two tectonic plates. Most times the plates will slide along each other or one under the other as in this case. But sometimes the plates jam and tension builds just like a spring. Then suddenly the plates can not resist the tension set upon them and like a spring suddenly releases all of their potential energy in a very short amount of time. An example in the United States is the San Andreas Fault; one plate is moving north and the other south, occasionally they jam up, and just as suddenly the tension is released giving rise to an earthquake.

This sudden release of potential energy also caused undersea landslides at or near the epicenter of this earthquake. It was this combination of events[massive displacement of water caused by displacement of rocks and such] that lead to the creation of the tsunami waves which have had such deadly effect.

Sumatra itself is no stranger to tragedy of the tectonic kind. Back in 1883, a volcanic island just off the Sumatran coast in the Sunda Strait let loose with a mighty roar. In an instant two-thirds of the island had been hurled skyward as debris. A tsunami wave of 40 meter height was created. A warship was hurled three kilometers inland. Approximately 36,000 people lost their lives to this tragedy. The name of this volcano? Krakatoa. So much debris was hurled into the upper atmosphere, 1883 became known as ‘The year without summer’ as temperatures plummeted while the sunsets became spectacular.

The greatest disaster caused by this earthquake off Sumatra might have occurred in the country of India. The tsunami wave caused damage to a nuclear power plant. Right now the Indian government says the power plant is in no danger. Let’s hope it stays under control or India will suffer something far worse than Bhopal and so will whomever is downwind of them.

Relief efforts are ongoing in all countries affected. The United States is contributing over $15million from the federal government, this figure will go higher. US military has dispatched P-3s, ships, supplies, and manpower to the area. Charitable organizations are also responding and so too are average American citizens donating. Australia is contributing roughly $10million along with its military lending assistance[meanwhile between Australia and Antarctica another earthquake happened]. The European Union is donating $4million. Israel is dispatching medicine, supplies, and once accommodations can be found doctors to Sri Lanka.

Lessons are already being learned from this tragedy. There is now a call to establish a tsunami reporting network like the one the United States has in place. When I first learned there was no such service for the Indian Ocean I was shocked. Ever since the 1948 Hilo Hawaii Tsunami, the US has had such a network to give warning to people in case a tsunami is on the way. I would have thought others would have joined the US service or created their own after seeing how it saves lives before such a calamity like this happened.

Like Krakatoa and Thera, this event also drives home an important point. The planet Earth is an active planet with many internal and external influences. Volcanoes erupt. Earthquakes change the geography. Tsunamis sweep the oceans before changing geography. Perhaps one day in the future some of this destructiveness can be tamed, but until then humans had better be mindful of the restless Earth that lays beneath their feet. They ignore this at their own peril.

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