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February 2005

ISSE reflections on the tsunami

On December 26, the word “tsunami” took on added meaning for people around the world as giant waves killed more than 250,000 people in Southeast Asia and East Africa. Caused by an earthquake off the coast of Indonesia, the tsunami was a geologic, not atmospheric, event. Still, scientists in the Institute for the Study of Society and Environment (ISSE) have expertise in a handful of tsunami-related areas, including human responses to natural disasters, the politics of early warning systems, coastal hazards and vulnerabilities, and coral reefs.

Staff Notes Monthly talked with Susi Moser, Joanie Kleypas, and Mickey Glantz about their thoughts on the aftermath of the waves.


The city of Meulaboh on the island of Sumatra, Indonesia, was hit hard by the tsunami. (U.S. Navy photo by photographer’s mate 3rd Class Jennifer Rivera.)


Susi Moser

Susi Moser

Susi Moser

A geographer by training, Susi studies the human dimensions of global environmental change, with emphases on coastal hazards management and climate change impacts on coastal systems.

She notes that extensive development along the coasts of Indian Ocean rim countries bolstered the tsunami’s capacity for destruction. “A disaster is only a disaster when humans put themselves or things they value at risk,” she says.

News stories after the disaster claimed if mangrove forests hadn’t been cleared to make way for shrimp farms and other development in Southeast Asia, these woody plants growing in the tidal zone would have helped dissipate the giant waves before they hit human settlements farther inland.

Susi, however, is uncertain whether they would have weakened such an exceptional tsunami. “If you have a 40-foot wave, but only a 10-foot wide mangrove belt protecting the coast, that’s not going to help you a lot. You have to look at the size of the protection versus the size of the tsunami,” she says.

She notes that affected countries will have the opportunity to limit their vulnerability to future tsunamis as well as to predicted sea-level rise as they begin making decisions about how and where to rebuild. “I think that this is the critical period, because human psychology is that people want to rebuild and reconstruct their lives exactly as they had them before to establish normalcy,” she says. “In order to take advantage of this window of opportunity, I truly hope that people will draw on experts and make wise decisions about where and how to rebuild.”

Joanie Kleypas

joanie Klepas

Joanie Kleypas

Like mangroves, coral reefs help weaken a tsunami’s force and protect the beach.

“Some of the reefs can be really big, sturdy structures,” says Joanie, a marine ecologist/geologist who specializes in the interactions between coral reef ecosystems and climate. “They slow waves down and dissipate energy.” Human-caused destruction of coral reefs prior to the tsunami likely allowed the waves to cause more damage ashore in certain places, she adds.

Reefs received a fair amount of press shortly after the tsunami, with reports saying the waves damaged them severely. “The news reports have been exaggerated,” says Joanie, who has compared reports from colleagues and researchers in the field to mainstream news stories. “Overall, the damage to reefs is not as bad as what happened to coastal areas on land.” She cites a rapid assessment by Thai researchers in the Andaman region that reveals that less than 15% of 175 reef sites were badly damaged, and 40% suffered no damage at all.

Joanie says a reef is naturally adapted to handle water motion and waves, with its most delicate corals located on the back side that faces away from the incoming tide. The worst damage to reefs in Southeast Asia was caused not by the tsunami itself, but by sediment and debris from shore that washed back over reefs and buried them. Damaged reefs will regenerate over time, depending upon how extensive the damage is.

Coastal communities leveled by the tsunami, Joanie says, should rebuild in ways that manage sediment run off and pollution better in order to protect their reefs, and should also consider building farther from the beach. “This could be an opportunity to lay the groundwork for a better infrastructure.”

Mickey Glantz

mickey glantz

Mickey Glantz

As the world’s attention slowly turns away from the relief efforts, the United Nations is pledging dollars and laying groundwork to create a better tsunami warning system for the Indian Ocean. The U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization has proposed a network of deep-sea buoys and regional communications centers that would cost $30 million and go into operation by the middle of next year.

“I would have started on the other end,” says Mickey, who studies the interaction between climate, society, and the environment. He also is an expert on early warning systems for natural disasters.

Mickey cautions that rather than rushing into building the physical components of an expensive new tsunami warning system, we should take a closer look at the communication, coordination, and interpretation of current warning systems. According to an Associated Press report, staff at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii said they tried to warn Indian Ocean nations about the possible effects of the earthquake, but they were not equipped to monitor that part of the world and didn’t even have phone numbers for the right officials.

“It’s like a tree falling in the forest. If no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” Mickey asks. “It’s the same for an early warning system. If people don’t hear it or know what to do, what’s the use?”

Mickey points out that building an early warning system is a popular political response to a disaster because it shows people that their government leaders are taking action. But often governments subsequently don’t take the warning systems very seriously.

“They’re going to build this humongous system, but that’s only half the problem. The other half is getting the word to people who are affected,” he says. He adds that poor people forced to live in marginal areas are at the greatest risk from natural disasters.

Scientists who make disaster forecasts can’t just sit back after their strictly scientific work is done, but must also play a part in informing the public, Mickey says. “Part of scientists’ responsibility is to make sure their messages aren’t just laid on a table.”

Nicole Gordon

tsunami1 tsunami2 tsunami3

tsunami4 tsunami5 tsunami6

These images, from a NOAA animation of the tsunami, show the site of the earthquake and the resulting waves. View the animation and other information from NOAA.

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