Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Tsunamis -- maybe the greatest peril of all

The biggest tragedy on record in recent memory is the Dec. 26 2006 tsunami in the Indian Ocean, triggered by an underwater earthquake off a coast of one of the Indonesian islands. The incident has triggered interest in the surprising threats to the mainland United States. Particularly on the East Coast, a tsunami could cause enormous damage to physical infrastructure from Miami all the way to the Canadian Maritimes, and our economic system is not prepared to deal with this in any reasonable way, even if people could be evacuated in time. There could be up to ten hours warning on the East Coast.

The History Channel broadcast-ed two one-hour documentaries on these grim scenarios on Tuesday, July 18, 2006.

Mega Disasters: East Coast Tsunami (2006, History Channel) explores the possibility that a volcanic eruption (the Cumbre Vieja) on La Palma Island in the Canary Islands (of the coast of Africa) could cause a 200 cubic mile landside that generates a 150-300 foot tsunami that reaches all the way to the East Coast from Florida to Newfoundland. The tidal waves would come in about 20 successive waves, and the “storm surges” would inundate all areas up to close to 300 feet above sea level (essentially the Fall Line of the Piedmont Plateau), destroying much of New York and Boston as well as obviously Florida. The economic and legal system is not prepared for such a catastrophe, as enormous sacrifices would have to be made by all Americans. (Remember the issue of taking in “refugees” into private homes after Katrina?) One wonders (in comparison to many other possible catastrophes) what science could do to prevent such destruction. Can mankind’s rationality win out, or is this idea a justification for moral values that force people to honor the norms of familial socialization? There was a smaller tsunami from the “Grand Banks” in Newfoundland in 1929. The Ritter Island tsunami in 1888 is analyzed.

One question that would come to mind here is whether the loose rock on the volcano should be "stripmined" to remove the risk of avalanche or massive rock slide. I wonder whether this is technically possible given the huge scale of strip mining equipment used to stripmine for coal.

Mega Disasters: West Coast Tsunami (2006, History Channel) is the companion film, about the grim outcomes along the West Coast if the subduction zone off the Pacific Northwest Coast fails with a massive earthquake. There is proof of earlier tsunamis from Hawaii, and going across the Pacific to Japan, and Krakatoa—as well as the catastrophe in the Indian Ocean on December 26, 2004.

Here is a National Geographic writeup on the tsunami problem. I believe that NG will have a film or special of its own soon on this. This program aired on July 27, 2006 and was called "Ultimate Tsunami." It covered the Indonesian Tsunami as a "relfective tsunami", with the tremendous damage at Banda Aceh and in Sri Lanka (Galle) and Thailand. It covered a landslide tsunami at Lituya Bay, Alaska in 1958, that generated an ultimate wave 1700 feet high in a small area. It speculates that the Oahu (including Honolulu) could be overrun by an ultimate tsunami from the Big Island to the east if Mauna Loa were to have a big eruption and if a significant portion of the mountain slid into the ocean.

Another important film was Peter Weir's 1977 film The Last Wave, which ends with a massive tsunami hitting Australia, after days of rain and warnings from aborigines.

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