(This letter was sent just after the devasting Indian Ocean Tsunami at the end of 2004. Over 200,000 lives were lost, the majority in the Aceh province of Indonesia, but also in Thailand, Sri Lanka, and as far away as the Maldives.)

Four steps for handling earthquakes and tsunamis

The devastating Sumatra earthquake and tsunami has focussed world attention on means of dealing with such events.

There are four steps in the process. In Step One (cliff-bottom treatment), dealing with disaster outcomes, the current response of Australia and other nations can only be described as magnificent and heartening.

In Step Two (cliff-top treatment) we appear to be starting out to provide a coordinated early-warning system for the Indian Ocean and elsewhere, on the Pacific pattern. The idea of a network of coastal solar-powered sirens, with a range of calls from ‘test’ to ‘immediate danger’, all linked via the Internet to a central control centre, is attractive. A good site would be Christmas Island, which is well located and needs more activities.

Step Three (cliff studies), in this case studying and modelling the underlying causes of earthquakes and the tsunamis they can evoke, is at its early stages and could lead to accurate earthquake prediction. I have been involved in some promising recent work* on this, based on a surprising aspect of the Earth’s behaviour, which could lead to a real breakthrough in prediction.

There is the possibility that the siren network could double as data-gathering nodes, feeding back information to the central site. A successful system might also be modified to handle land-based earthquakes.

Australian input here would not be purely altruistic, as the indications are that we are at risk of a major tsunami event, connected with the Java Trench, which could devastate Darwin, Broome, Port Hedland, and much of our northern and north-western coasts.

At present we have little possibility of developing Step Four, to neutralize earthquakes (cliff restructuring), in view of the enormous forces involved. But any advances here will depend on progress with Step Three.

David Noel
2005 Jan 7

*See, for example, http://aoi.com.au/bcw/FixedorExpandingEarth.htm.

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Last update 2005 Mar 13