Speakers at AAAS Offer Vivid Accounts of Indonesian Quake and Tsunami
David Simpson is an experienced seismologist, and in the course of his career, he has extensively studied hundreds of earthquakes. But while scientists tend to speak in cautious, measured terms, Simpson's words were colored by awe during a recent AAAS presentation on the 26 December Indonesian earthquake and tsunami.
Quite simply, he has never seen a quake of such force registered in such scientific detail, and neither have his colleagues. To describe the magnitude and power of the Sumatra-Andaman quake, the resulting tidal wave, and the companion Nias quake on 28 March, one must speak in superlatives.
"The data collected provide an unprecedented opportunity to improve our understanding of these rare, great earthquakes," said Simpson, president of the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology (IRIS), a university research consortium based in Washington, D.C. It was "truly phenomenal." The vibrations picked up by an array of high-tech monitors were "like the ringing of a bell…from the hammer blow the Earth received."
And the effect was deadly, claiming nearly 300,000 lives, more than any other quake in modern times.
Simpson spoke at AAAS headquarters in Washington on 25 May. He was joined by Jeff Albert, a AAAS/EPA Environmental Fellow who visited Indonesia in the weeks after the first quake to promote and study efforts to provide clean water in disaster areas.
The 26 December quake registered as much as 9.3 on the Richter scale, and the Nias quake registered at 8.6but such numbers tell an abstract story. Drawing his data from a variety of studiessome of them published in the 20 May issue of ScienceSimpson offered a more graphic account.
The quake occurred off the coast of Indonesia, where the Eurasian Plate and the Indo-Australian plates grind together; the plates slipped an average of 15 meters along a line 1,200 kilometers longroughly the length of California. The shaking was 100 times greater than the 1989 Loma Prieta quake that caused extensive death and destruction in the Bay Area of Northern California. That quake lasted about 20 seconds; the rapid shaking from Sumatra-Andaman quake lasted more than eight minutes.
The Sumatra-Andaman quake "produced as much energy as all the earthquakes [worldwide] that have occurred in the past decade combined," Simpson said.
The quake literally caused the whole planet to shake, he explained. The resulting tsunami caused destruction and death from Indonesia to India and the East Coast of Africa, but the wave also was recorded north in the Arctic Ocean, south in Antarctica, and on both coasts of the Americas.
Perhaps the signature moment of Simpson's presentation came as he introduced time-lapsed audio of seismic recordings of the Indonesian quake and its aftershocks that had been gathered from a worldwide network of high-tech instruments. Speeded up by a factor of 4000 (6 hours time-lapsed to 5.5 sec), the sound was a long, low groan; with the recording speeded up almost a million times (20 days compressed to less than 2 sec), the sound of the slow vibrations of the entire planet emerged like the metallic clanging of a church bell.
And Earth was the bell.
IRIS, funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation, played a central role in bringing about the 20 May reports in Science from three teams of experts. IRIS, in collaboration with the U.S. Geological Survey, operates a global network of seismic monitoring stations that provided much of the data for the analysis.
Jeff Albert is a water resources expert who holds an adjunct appointment at the Global Environment Program of Brown University's Watson Institute for International Studies; as a AAAS Fellow, he has been assigned to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Within hours of the quake, he reached out to a contact at Procter & Gamble; before the end of the day, he was busily raising funds for an effort to bring millions of packets of the company's PuR water purification powder to tsunami survivors.
Within days, he was en route to Indonesia, where he helped to train local NGO staffers who were distributing the P&G product. There, he saw the first-hand the destruction and the challenges that will be posed in rebuilding.
In his presentation at AAAS, Albert described how the tsunami had "laid bare" portions of the Sumatra coast, sometimes three to four kilometers inland from the beach. The deaths hit every coastal village, almost every family, and among those who survived, there were injuries and outbreaks of tetanus and other disease.
Clean water is crucial to the disease-prevention effort, and P&G worked with aid agencies to distribute 10 to 15 million sachets of the powderenough to purify 150 million litersin Indonesia, Sri Lanka and other hard-hit regions.
One four-gram sachet is dissolved in a 10-liter bucket of turbid water. The result is dramatic: Dirt and other particulates are sucked out of suspension, leaving the water clear and disinfected.
"It's difficult to introduce a technical innovation during a disaster," Albert said, "but that's what we tried to do."
In the weeks after the disaster, other water problems emerged: Water that had been disinfected by boiling was often stored in the open, raising the incidence of re-contamination. And many fresh-water wells were infiltrated by salt water, forcing recovery crews to consider desalination projects.
Albert and Simpson agreed that the hard lessons learned in aftermath of the quake could be crucial in containing the impact of future disasters, both in Indonesia and globally.
The ocean is central to the economy of Indonesian villages, Simpson said, and so it's unlikely that many people will move away from the shore. Instead, he said, tsunami warning systems and education projects must be developed that will "allow people to do as well as they can" in the event of future quakes.
In response to a question from the audience, Simpson stressed "the necessity of building resilient communities."
"We don't know where it's going to happen next," he said, "but we can begin to develop the infrastructure and the public education systems to prevent a disaster of this magnitude from happening again."
Albert and AAAS Diplomacy Fellow Ranjiv Khush have founded the Aquaya Institute, which is dedicated to reducing the incidence of water-related disease in the developing world.
Edward W. Lempinen
3 June 2005