January 7, 2005

Tides of Tectonic Forces

Science-fiction author, Sir Arthur C. Clarke, provides perspective on the tsunami disaster from his home in Sri Lanka. As one of the first to call for global satellite networks in 1945, his half-century legacy has played a key role in mitigating tragedies that offered few warning signs.

Astrobiology Magazine -- "What happened on 26 December, 2004, was an unprecedented global catastrophe," said United Nations' Secretary General Kofi Annan "It requires an unprecedented global response ... It is a race against time."

Annan has expressed his grief over the immediate loss estimated to reach in excess of 140,000 casualties, but also the five million at epidemic risk over the next six months.

In a personal letter from long-time Sri Lankan resident and author, Sir Arthur C. Clarke, to Benny Peiser, who has participated in numerous risk-assessment debates on Astrobiology Magazine's forums, Clarke recounts the devastating effects of the post-Christmas tsunami. With his life-long and personal perspective on hazards in the Indian Ocean, Clarke's letter of appeal is reprinted with permission.


Thank you for your concern about my safety in the wake of last Sunday's devastating tidal wave.

I am enormously relieved that my family and household have escaped the ravages of the sea that suddenly invaded most parts of coastal Sri Lanka, leaving a trail of destruction.

But many others were not so fortunate. For over two million Sri Lankans and a large number of foreign tourists holidaying here, the day after Christmas turned out to be a living nightmare reminiscent of The Day After Tomorrow. My heart-felt sympathy goes out to all those who lost family members or friends.

Among those who directly experienced the waves were my staff based at our diving station in Hikkaduwa, and my holiday bungalows in Kahawa and Thiranagama-- ­ all beachfront properties located in southern areas that were badly hit.

Our staff members are all safe, even though some are badly shaken and relate harrowing first hand accounts of what happened. Most of our diving equipment and boats at Hikkaduwa were washed away. We still don't know the full extent of damage -- it will take a while for us to take stock as accessing these areas is still difficult.

This is indeed a disaster of unprecedented magnitude for Sri Lanka, which lacks the resources and capacity to cope with the aftermath. We are encouraging concerned friends to contribute to the relief efforts launched by various national and international organisations.

There is much to be done in both short and long terms for Sri Lanka to raise its head from this blow from the seas.

Among other things, the country needs to improve its technical and communications facilities so that effective early warnings can help minimise losses in future disasters.

Curiously enough, in my first book on Sri Lanka, I had written about another tidal wave reaching the Galle harbour (see Chapter 8 in The Reefs of Taprobane, 1957). That happened in August 1883, following the eruption of Krakatoa in roughly the same part of the Indian Ocean.

-- Arthur C. Clarke


Clarke's perspective on global events from the day after Christmas is uniquely defined by his lifetime contributions to futurism.

Clarke is largely credited with the 1945 proposal for geostationary satellites and global communications networks. Echoing his hope for better communications services and early disaster warning, Clarke wrote a similar appeal more than a half-century earlier to a skeptical audience after the second World War: "Many may consider the solution proposed [for extra-terrestrial relay services] too far-fetched to be taken seriously. Such an attitude is unreasonable, as everything envisaged here is a logical extension of developments in the last ten years..."

Such satellite remote sensing is credited with aiding image collection and disaster assessment among relief agencies and international organizations since Christmas. Mitigation or early warning systems however did not provide alerts to communities at risk.

Secondly, there remains an active research debate about whether tsunami risks are fully accounted for, since quantitative study is limited by mega-tsunami's relative infrequency and perceived regional -- not global -- hazard.

 In his letter, Clarke specifically cites the devastation caused a century ago by the Krakatau (or Krakatoa) eruption, which was a volcano on the Indonesian island of Rakata. It erupted in 1883, generating waves as high as 40 meters above sea level. This tsunami killed over 36,000 people in Sumatra and Java, and rocked ships as far away as South Africa.

Until the most recent events, such mega-tsunamis represented a risk discounted by the Tsunami Society web site: "No such event - a mega-tsunami - has occurred in either the Atlantic or Pacific oceans in recorded history. NONE." A perspective on this question has previously appeared.


On the Net:


Tsunami Society

The Benfield Hazard Research Centre

National Geophysical Data Center