- In the aftermath of a cataclysm like the Asian tsunami,
speculation can run wild. Reserving judgment until we really know what
happened, here is a list of salient questions and answers that I,ve
from news reports, government and other reliable sources.
- Q: What set off the gigantic tsunamis that devastated
coastal south-east Asia?
- A: An undersea earthquake measuring 9.0 on the Richter
scale with its epicenter about 160 km from the northern portion of the
island of Sumatra in Indonesia on Sunday, December 26.
- Q: How soon after the quake did the tsunami hit?
- A: The earthquake hit Indonesia at 6:58 a.m; the tsunami
arrived as much as 2 1/2 hours later, without warning, suggesting that
it might not have been caused directly by the quake but by some other
triggered by the quake.
- Q: How large was it?
- A: It was the largest since the 9.2 quake in Prince
Sound in Alaska in 1964 and the 4th largest in the century. The quake moved
the entire island of Sumatra about 100 feet toward the southwest and even
disturbed the Earth's rotation. It was the first tsunami in the Indian
Ocean since 1883. Waves of around 30-40 ft in height and even greater were
- Q: What caused the undersea earthquake?
- A: Compression between the Indian and Burmese tectonic
plates. Scientists believe that one plate that comprised the landmass from
India to Australia has broken up into two. The initial 8.9 eruption
near the location of the meeting point of the Australian, Indian and
- Q: What made the plates shift?
- A: It may have been set off by another quake of about
8.1 on the Richter scale on the other side of the plate about 900 km SE
of the coast of Tasmania on Thursday, December 24, which caused no serious
damage however. The causal relationship is not proved but the time sequence
is striking and some seismologists have considered it quite
- Q: Were tsunamis expected from that earlier quake?
- A: The U.S. government's Pacific Tsunami Warning Center
said on its Web site that ``widely destructive'' tsunamis from the quake
were possible in the open ocean
- Q: Have there been similar earthquakes set off the South
East of Tasmania before?
- A: Yes, in 1998 a very large earthquake occurred south
of Australia and New Zealand, between Macquarie Island and Antarctica on
March 25 about 2,300 km south of Hobart in Tasmania, and 500 km north of
the Antarctic coast
- Q: Did this generate tsunamis?
- A: Very large long-period surface waves were recorded
in the hour after the earthquake.
- Q: What connection if any is there between Tasmania and
- A: Its capital Hobart on the South East coast is the
base for the administration of Australia's Antarctic program. The French
regularly resupply their Antarctic base at Dumont d'Urville from the port,
and American, Chinese, Russian and Italian ice breakers regularly visit..
Through its exploratory, commercial and scientific associations with the
sub-antarctic and Antarctic regions, Hobart possibly enjoys a longer
Antarctic connection than any other spot on the planet.
- Q: What are some other disturbances that can cause
- A: Landslides or explosions such as underwater nuclear
- Q: Is underwater nuclear testing common?
- A: Yes, The United States has conducted 1,054 tests of
nuclear devices between July 16, 1945 and September 23, 1992. Before 1962,
all the tests were atmospheric (on land or in the Pacific or Atlantic
but overall the majority - 839 - were underground tests. From 1966 to 1990,
167 French nuclear test explosions have been performed on two atolls in
French Polynesia, Morurua and Fangataua. Of the 167 tests, 44 were
Atmospheric explosions were carried out until 1974, but only underground
tests after that. The underground tests have been conducted at the bottom
of shafts bored 500-1200 meters into the basalt core of the atoll.
these shafts were drilled in the outer rim of the atoll. In 1981, most
likely due to the weakening of that rim, the tests with higher yields were
shifted to shafts drilled under the lagoon itself.
- Q: What are the effects of underwater nuclear
- A: To quote from a 1995 case brought against the French
government, Case T-219/95 R, by Marie-Thérèse Danielsson,
Pierre Largenteau and Edwin Haoa, all residing in Tahiti, French Polynesia:
"Short-term effects include geological damage and the venting of
and volatile fission products into the biosphere. Nuclear tests, the
say, can cause landslides and did indeed cause a major underwater landslide
at Mururoa in 1979, when a nuclear device was exploded after jamming
down its shaft. Since the geology of Mururoa is already unstable due to
large-scale fracturing caused by previous tests, further major landslides
are likely. Such landslides in the past have given rise to tsunamis causing
coastal damage in areas as far away as Pitcairn and Tahiti and endangering
residences such as that of Ms. Danielsson. They can also release
material into the sea, with catastrophic effects on the food chain in an
area such as French Polynesia where fish is an important part of the
- Q: What were the effects of the Murarao landslide?
- A: It shifted at least one million cubic meters of coral
and rock and created a cavity, probably 140 meters in diameter and produced
a major tidal wave comparable to a tsunami, which spread through the
Archipelago and injured people on the southern part of Moruroa Atoll.
authorities initially denied that any mishap had occurred and declared
that the tidal wave was of natural origin, but in a publication in 1985
they did acknowledge "the accident of 25 July 1979".
- Q: Can landslides create tsunamis?
- A: Research on underwater landslides is new and it is
only in recent years that the potentially catastrophic results of a
have become known. Dr Summerhayes, Director of the Institute of
Sciences in the United Kingdom, is quoted in the Independent Newspaper
on 9 September 1995 as saying that volcanic islands like Mururoa
- "... inherently unstable and may fail given an
trigger like an earthquake or a very large explosion. Failure is likely
to cause a giant submarine landslide which may demolish parts of the island
and could create a tidal wave that may itself damage coastal installations
on other islands nearby."
- Furthermore he stated that the creation of such a tidal
wave was "a general threat to coasts as far away as New Zealand and
- Q: How predictable would earthquakes be in the region
- A: Indonesia, an archipelago of 17,000 islands, lies
along the Pacific Ring of Fire where plate boundaries intersect and
- Q: How common are tsunamis in the Indian Ocean?
- A: Tsunamis are rare in the Indian Ocean though there
have been 7 records of tsunamis set off by earthquakes near Indonesia,
Pakistan and at the Bay of Bengal.
- This is the first multi-ocean tsunami since Krakatau
erupted in the nineteenth century.
- Q: Is there a warning system for tsunamis in
- A: An international system of buoys and monitoring
" the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center based in Hawaii " spans
the Pacific, alerting nations there to any oncoming disasters. But no such
system guards the Indian Ocean. Neither India or Sri Lanka are part of
the system and though Thailand is the south western coast does not have
the system,s sensors floated on buoys.
- Q: Could the carnage have been avoided?
- A: Much of this death and destruction could have been
prevented with a simple system of buoys. Officials in Thailand and
have said that an immediate public warning could have saved lives, but
that they did not know about the danger because there was no international
system in place to track tsunamis in the Indian Ocean.
- Q: How difficult would it have been to set up?
- A: The detector buoys have been around for decades and
the U.S. has had a monitoring system for more than half a century. More
than 50 seismometers dot the Northwest ready to monitor earthquakes that
might cause tsunamis. There are 6 buoys in the middle of the Pacific
with sensors called "tsunameters" that measure changes in water
pressure and programmed to alert the country's two tsunami-warning centers
in Hawaii and Alaska. Dr. Eddie Bernard, director of the National Oceanic
and Atmospheric Administration. Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory
in Seattle, says just a few buoys could do the job.
- Q: What held up putting a system in place?
- A: Scientists wanted to place two more tsunami meters
in the Indian Ocean, including one near Indonesia, but lacked funding,
said Bernard. The tsunameters each cost only $250,000.
- Q: How soon did people know about the tsunami?
- A: Within 15 minutes of the earthquake, scientists
the existing tsunami warning system for the Pacific sent an alert from
their Honolulu hub to 26 participating countries, including Thailand and
Indonesia, that destructive waves might be generated by the Sumatra
- Q: Did anyone warn Indonesia or any other country?
- A: "We put out a bulletin within 20 minutes,
as fast as we could do it," says Jeff LaDouce of the NOOA. LaDouce
says e-mails were dispatched to Indonesian officials, but he doesn't know
what happened to the information. Phone calls were hurriedly made to
in the Indian Ocean danger zone, Dr. Laura S. L. Kong, a Commerce
seismologist and director of the International Tsunami Information Center
said, but not with the speed that comes from pre-established emergency
planning. Reportedly, NOOA didn,t know whom to contact.
- Q: What responsibility do Asian governments have in the
lack of preparedness?
- A: At a meeting in June of the Intergovernmental
Commission, a United Nations body, experts concluded that the "Indian
Ocean has a significant threat from both local and distant tsunamis"
and should have a warning network but India, Thailand, Malaysia and other
countries in the region have "never shown the initiative to do
said Dr. Tad Murty, an expert on the region's tsunamis who is affiliated
with the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. "There's no reason for
a single individual to get killed in a tsunami," he noted, "The
waves are totally predictable. We have travel-time charts covering all
of the Indian Ocean. From where this earthquake happened to hit, the travel
time for waves to hit the tip of India was four hours. That's enough time
for a warning. In Thailand, officials reportedly played down warnings
that if there was a false alarm, tourism might be seriously damages as
had happened once before.
- Q: Were there any oddities about the quake besides
- A: The quake was rated a 6.4 on the Richter scale
to an official at the Bureau of Meteorology and Geophysics in Jakarta.
But the U.S. Geological Survey measured the earthquake at a magnitude of
8.1. The assessment significantly underestimated the size and impact of
- Q: When were people in the affected regions
- A: Officials in Thailand issued the only warnings of
the impending disaster, but broadcasts beamed to tourist resorts in the
country's south underestimated the threat and a Web site caution was not
posted until three hours after the first waves hit.
- Q: Was anyone warned in time at all?
- A: Yes. The NOAA immediately warned the U.S. Naval
at Diego Garcia, which suffered very little damage from the tsunami. NOAA
was able to get the warning to the US Navy base in the area, but says it
was unable to contact the civil authorities in the region to warn
- Q: Was there any damage to Diego Garcia, the U.S. base
in the Indian Ocean?
- A: None, although Diego Garcia, the southernmost island
of the Chagos Archipelag, lies about 1,000 miles south of India and about
2,000 miles from the earthquake,s epicenter. Meanwhile, Somalia, nearly
3,000 from the earthquake,s center, reported more than 100 deaths in
areas. A spokeswoman for the U.S. Geological Survey, said damage differs
greatly because of differences in the undersea topography. The numerous
coral reefs may have dissipated some of the waves, impact on the
island, resulting in only a slightly elevated tide, hardly noticeable to
- Q: Have tidal waves figured in weapons research?
- A: Yes. Secret wartime experiments were conducted off
the New Zealand coast to create a bomb that would trigger tidal waves,
according to government files declassified in Auckland. But the tsunami
bomb was never fully tested and the war ended before the project was
Its mastermind was Thomas Leech, an Australian professor who was the dean
of engineering at Auckland University from 1940 to 1950. He set off a
of underwater explosions that caused mini tidal waves at Whangaparaoa,
north of Auckland, in 1944 and 1945. Details of the research, known as
Project Seal, are contained in 53- year-old documents released by the New
Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
- Q: Is it possible for a nuclear explosion to have
the Macquarie quake in some way and indirectly caused the changes that
led to the Sumatra quake and the Asian tsunami?
- A: It is possible that a very large explosion might have
triggered the first quake directly in some way or that repeated prior
could have induced changes that led to the quake indirectly, but research
on the fall-out of nuclear testing is so highly classified that little
is known of the possible impact. The U.S. has not ratified the
Test Ban Treaty, leaving the door open to future U.S. testing despite an
extended moratorium. There has already been a strong move toward resumption
of testing since 2002. Now earth-penetrating nukes (bunker busters) and
mini-nukes might provide the pretext.
- Lila Rajiva is a free-lance journalist in the Baltimore
area and the author of "The Language of Empire: Abu Ghraib and the
American Media," to be released by Monthly Review Press in 2005
She can be reached at: email@example.com