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Unnatural Disaster?

by LILA RAJIVA

In the aftermath of a cataclysm like the Asian tsunami, speculation can run wild. Reserving judgment until we really know what happened, here is a list of salient questions and answers that I,ve compiled from news reports, government and other reliable sources.

Q: What set off the gigantic tsunamis that devastated coastal south-east Asia?

A: An undersea earthquake measuring 9.0 on the Richter scale with its epicenter about 160 km from the northern portion of the island of Sumatra in Indonesia on Sunday, December 26.

Q: How soon after the quake did the tsunami hit?

A: The earthquake hit Indonesia at 6:58 a.m; the tsunami arrived as much as 2 1/2 hours later, without warning, suggesting that it might not have been caused directly by the quake but by some other change triggered by the quake.

Q: How large was it?

A: It was the largest since the 9.2 quake in Prince William Sound in Alaska in 1964 and the 4th largest in the century. The quake moved the entire island of Sumatra about 100 feet toward the southwest and even disturbed the Earth’s rotation. It was the first tsunami in the Indian Ocean since 1883. Waves of around 30-40 ft in height and even greater were widely reported.

Q: What caused the undersea earthquake?

A: Compression between the Indian and Burmese tectonic plates. Scientists believe that one plate that comprised the landmass from India to Australia has broken up into two. The initial 8.9 eruption happened near the location of the meeting point of the Australian, Indian and Burmese plates

Q: What made the plates shift?

A: It may have been set off by another quake of about 8.1 on the Richter scale on the other side of the plate about 900 km SE of the coast of Tasmania on Thursday, December 24, which caused no serious damage however. The causal relationship is not proved but the time sequence is striking and some seismologists have considered it quite possible.

Q: Were tsunamis expected from that earlier quake?

A: The U.S. government’s Pacific Tsunami Warning Center said on its Web site that “widely destructive” tsunamis from the quake were possible in the open ocean

Q: Have there been similar earthquakes set off the South East of Tasmania before?

A: Yes, in 1998 a very large earthquake occurred south of Australia and New Zealand, between Macquarie Island and Antarctica on March 25 about 2,300 km south of Hobart in Tasmania, and 500 km north of the Antarctic coast

Q: Did this generate tsunamis?

A: Very large long-period surface waves were recorded in the hour after the earthquake.

Q: What connection if any is there between Tasmania and Antarctica?

A: Its capital Hobart on the South East coast is the base for the administration of Australia’s Antarctic program. The French regularly resupply their Antarctic base at Dumont d’Urville from the port, and American, Chinese, Russian and Italian ice breakers regularly visit.. Through its exploratory, commercial and scientific associations with the sub-antarctic and Antarctic regions, Hobart possibly enjoys a longer continuous Antarctic connection than any other spot on the planet.

Q: What are some other disturbances that can cause tsunamis?

A: Landslides or explosions such as underwater nuclear testing.

Q: Is underwater nuclear testing common?

A: Yes, The United States has conducted 1,054 tests of nuclear devices between July 16, 1945 and September 23, 1992. Before 1962, all the tests were atmospheric (on land or in the Pacific or Atlantic oceans) but overall the majority – 839 – were underground tests. From 1966 to 1990, 167 French nuclear test explosions have been performed on two atolls in French Polynesia, Morurua and Fangataua. Of the 167 tests, 44 were atmospheric. Atmospheric explosions were carried out until 1974, but only underground tests after that. The underground tests have been conducted at the bottom of shafts bored 500-1200 meters into the basalt core of the atoll. Initially these shafts were drilled in the outer rim of the atoll. In 1981, most likely due to the weakening of that rim, the tests with higher yields were shifted to shafts drilled under the lagoon itself.

Q: What are the effects of underwater nuclear testing?

A: To quote from a 1995 case brought against the French government, Case T-219/95 R, by Marie-Thérèse Danielsson, Pierre Largenteau and Edwin Haoa, all residing in Tahiti, French Polynesia: “Short-term effects include geological damage and the venting of gaseous and volatile fission products into the biosphere. Nuclear tests, the applicants say, can cause landslides and did indeed cause a major underwater landslide at Mururoa in 1979, when a nuclear device was exploded after jamming half-way down its shaft. Since the geology of Mururoa is already unstable due to large-scale fracturing caused by previous tests, further major landslides are likely. Such landslides in the past have given rise to tsunamis causing coastal damage in areas as far away as Pitcairn and Tahiti and endangering residences such as that of Ms. Danielsson. They can also release radioactive material into the sea, with catastrophic effects on the food chain in an area such as French Polynesia where fish is an important part of the diet.

Q: What were the effects of the Murarao landslide?

A: It shifted at least one million cubic meters of coral and rock and created a cavity, probably 140 meters in diameter and produced a major tidal wave comparable to a tsunami, which spread through the Tuamotu Archipelago and injured people on the southern part of Moruroa Atoll. French authorities initially denied that any mishap had occurred and declared that the tidal wave was of natural origin, but in a publication in 1985 they did acknowledge “the accident of 25 July 1979”.

Q: Can landslides create tsunamis?

A: Research on underwater landslides is new and it is only in recent years that the potentially catastrophic results of a landslide have become known. Dr Summerhayes, Director of the Institute of Oceanographic Sciences in the United Kingdom, is quoted in the Independent Newspaper on 9 September 1995 as saying that volcanic islands like Mururoa were:

“… inherently unstable and may fail given an appropriate trigger like an earthquake or a very large explosion. Failure is likely to cause a giant submarine landslide which may demolish parts of the island and could create a tidal wave that may itself damage coastal installations on other islands nearby.”

Furthermore he stated that the creation of such a tidal wave was “a general threat to coasts as far away as New Zealand and Australia.”

Q: How predictable would earthquakes be in the region around Indonesia?

A: Indonesia, an archipelago of 17,000 islands, lies along the Pacific Ring of Fire where plate boundaries intersect and volcanoes regularly erupt.

Q: How common are tsunamis in the Indian Ocean?

A: Tsunamis are rare in the Indian Ocean though there have been 7 records of tsunamis set off by earthquakes near Indonesia, Pakistan and at the Bay of Bengal.

This is the first multi-ocean tsunami since Krakatau erupted in the nineteenth century.

Q: Is there a warning system for tsunamis in place?

A: An international system of buoys and monitoring stations ” the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center based in Hawaii ” spans the Pacific, alerting nations there to any oncoming disasters. But no such system guards the Indian Ocean. Neither India or Sri Lanka are part of the system and though Thailand is the south western coast does not have the system,s sensors floated on buoys.

Q: Could the carnage have been avoided?

A: Much of this death and destruction could have been prevented with a simple system of buoys. Officials in Thailand and Indonesia have said that an immediate public warning could have saved lives, but that they did not know about the danger because there was no international system in place to track tsunamis in the Indian Ocean.

Q: How difficult would it have been to set up?

A: The detector buoys have been around for decades and the U.S. has had a monitoring system for more than half a century. More than 50 seismometers dot the Northwest ready to monitor earthquakes that might cause tsunamis. There are 6 buoys in the middle of the Pacific equipped with sensors called “tsunameters” that measure changes in water pressure and programmed to alert the country’s two tsunami-warning centers in Hawaii and Alaska. Dr. Eddie Bernard, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle, says just a few buoys could do the job.

Q: What held up putting a system in place?

A: Scientists wanted to place two more tsunami meters in the Indian Ocean, including one near Indonesia, but lacked funding, said Bernard. The tsunameters each cost only $250,000.

Q: How soon did people know about the tsunami?

A: Within 15 minutes of the earthquake, scientists running the existing tsunami warning system for the Pacific sent an alert from their Honolulu hub to 26 participating countries, including Thailand and Indonesia, that destructive waves might be generated by the Sumatra tremors.

Q: Did anyone warn Indonesia or any other country?

A: “We put out a bulletin within 20 minutes, technically as fast as we could do it,” says Jeff LaDouce of the NOOA. LaDouce says e-mails were dispatched to Indonesian officials, but he doesn’t know what happened to the information. Phone calls were hurriedly made to countries in the Indian Ocean danger zone, Dr. Laura S. L. Kong, a Commerce Department seismologist and director of the International Tsunami Information Center said, but not with the speed that comes from pre-established emergency planning. Reportedly, NOOA didn,t know whom to contact.

Q: What responsibility do Asian governments have in the lack of preparedness?

A: At a meeting in June of the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, a United Nations body, experts concluded that the “Indian Ocean has a significant threat from both local and distant tsunamis” and should have a warning network but India, Thailand, Malaysia and other countries in the region have “never shown the initiative to do anything,” said Dr. Tad Murty, an expert on the region’s tsunamis who is affiliated with the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. “There’s no reason for a single individual to get killed in a tsunami,” he noted, “The waves are totally predictable. We have travel-time charts covering all of the Indian Ocean. From where this earthquake happened to hit, the travel time for waves to hit the tip of India was four hours. That’s enough time for a warning. In Thailand, officials reportedly played down warnings afraid that if there was a false alarm, tourism might be seriously damages as had happened once before.

Q: Were there any oddities about the quake besides this?

A: The quake was rated a 6.4 on the Richter scale according to an official at the Bureau of Meteorology and Geophysics in Jakarta. But the U.S. Geological Survey measured the earthquake at a magnitude of 8.1. The assessment significantly underestimated the size and impact of the quake.

Q: When were people in the affected regions warned?

A: Officials in Thailand issued the only warnings of the impending disaster, but broadcasts beamed to tourist resorts in the country’s south underestimated the threat and a Web site caution was not posted until three hours after the first waves hit.

Q: Was anyone warned in time at all?

A: Yes. The NOAA immediately warned the U.S. Naval Station at Diego Garcia, which suffered very little damage from the tsunami. NOAA was able to get the warning to the US Navy base in the area, but says it was unable to contact the civil authorities in the region to warn them.

Q: Was there any damage to Diego Garcia, the U.S. base in the Indian Ocean?

A: None, although Diego Garcia, the southernmost island of the Chagos Archipelag, lies about 1,000 miles south of India and about 2,000 miles from the earthquake,s epicenter. Meanwhile, Somalia, nearly 3,000 from the earthquake,s center, reported more than 100 deaths in coastal areas. A spokeswoman for the U.S. Geological Survey, said damage differs greatly because of differences in the undersea topography. The numerous coral reefs may have dissipated some of the waves, impact on the British-owned island, resulting in only a slightly elevated tide, hardly noticeable to residents

Q: Have tidal waves figured in weapons research?

A: Yes. Secret wartime experiments were conducted off the New Zealand coast to create a bomb that would trigger tidal waves, according to government files declassified in Auckland. But the tsunami bomb was never fully tested and the war ended before the project was completed. Its mastermind was Thomas Leech, an Australian professor who was the dean of engineering at Auckland University from 1940 to 1950. He set off a series of underwater explosions that caused mini tidal waves at Whangaparaoa, north of Auckland, in 1944 and 1945. Details of the research, known as Project Seal, are contained in 53- year-old documents released by the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Q: Is it possible for a nuclear explosion to have triggered the Macquarie quake in some way and indirectly caused the changes that led to the Sumatra quake and the Asian tsunami?

A: It is possible that a very large explosion might have triggered the first quake directly in some way or that repeated prior testing could have induced changes that led to the quake indirectly, but research on the fall-out of nuclear testing is so highly classified that little is known of the possible impact. The U.S. has not ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, leaving the door open to future U.S. testing despite an extended moratorium. There has already been a strong move toward resumption of testing since 2002. Now earth-penetrating nukes (bunker busters) and mini-nukes might provide the pretext.

LILA RAJIVA is a free-lance journalist in the Baltimore area and the author of “The Language of Empire: Abu Ghraib and the American Media,” to be released by Monthly Review Press in 2005 Spring. She can be reached at: lrajiva@hotmail.co

 

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