In the aftermath of the Chilean mega-earthquake on Tuesday, which measured 8.2 on the Richter scale, and the small tsunamis which followed, natural disasters and their consequences have been the subject of some rather heated debate. Speculation over potential triggers and geo-physical consequences which may have unleashed as a result of these events, have been the main focus of the discussion. In particular, it has centered on where the next mega-quake might hit and what possible repercussions might follow as one natural disaster can, and often has, led to further similar instances. Global fears are now increasing in connection with a belief that a latent mega-quake is waiting in the depths of the Atlantic, destined to trigger a future mega-tsunami which would head straight for the east coast of the US.
The basis of these beliefs lies at the geological heart of a small island in the Canaries, called La Palma. One of the most popular holiday destinations for people all over the world, the island of La Palma is now seen as a time bomb by many scientists. After two previous volcanic eruptions in 1949 and 1971 from the Cumbre Vieja volcanic ridge they believe a precarious geological imbalance was created which leaves the ridge in imminent danger of collapse. The hypothesis goes that one more eruption could result in an enormous landslide, sending 500 cubic kilometers of earth crashing into the sea. This massive amount of energy generated from this collapse would then result in the biggest wave mankind has ever witnessed. Starting off at a kilometer high it would have the speed capacity of a jet aircraft when journeying across the ocean and would even lead to a series of eight to ten waves all monstrously high, after the initial impact. This mega-tsunami would be unleashed on the Atlantic, as opposed to the Pacific, and would spread throughout the oceanic basin, demolishing the West African and European coasts before turning its incredible bulk towards America.
This terrifying scientific theory was used in a BBC documentary, Could We Survive A Mega-Tsunami?, and included several experts using state of the art technology to predict what might happen should their fears prove justified about the unstable volcanic ridge on La Palma. The resulting program has been criticized as promoting scaremongering and has also been questioned by other scientists in the various fields. However, while there is certainly a tendency towards the kind of graphics used in the acclaimed film The Day After Tomorrow and the whole thing smacks a little of an attempt to draw viewers in through sheer shock value, there are some issues and problems the program highlights which clearly warrant further investigation and attention.
More importantly it highlights how vulnerable the East coast of the US, in particular, is to this type of natural disaster. Almost 40 million people live within 40km of the coastline in America, and of that 40 million about a quarter are within 10km of the shoreline. Added on to that, the fact that most of the main cities close to the coast are only about 10m above sea level and places like Atlantic City, the island of Manhattan and Rhode Island, all become incredibly easy targets for a future mega-tsunami. As well as this, there is the fact that the population of places like Manhattan tends to increase in size quite dramatically during any working day and so the number of people at risk is likely to be higher than the base rate of inhabitants. Perhaps the most alarming fact associated with all of this however, is how little time all of these people would have to try to escape such a catastrophe. In the program made by the BBC there was a potential situation where the whole East coast of the US had only three to four hours of notice before the arrival of a mega-tsunami. The same hypothetical scenario resulted in a rough estimation of four and a half million casualties.
Now again, while this is all based on scientific speculation, it certainly raises a number of questions, not least about the technology used to detect or predict natural disasters or the security measures in place should one on such a scale turn out to be an imminent threat. Part of the problem, as the documentary revealed, is that most of the technology used by governments to detect tsunamis is actually technology geared towards measuring earthquakes. This is due to the fact that most tidal waves in the past have been triggered by under water or land earthquakes. Waves caused by any other means, such as a volcanic collapse, are therefore very difficult to detect as they don’t show up on the monitors in the same way. Another method used as a defense against tidal waves is deep ocean ‘darts’ sensors which detect changes in deep-sea behavior, however these only provide a few hours warning before the wave is due to hit the coast. Therefore scientists have predicted that the fasted method of communicating the onset of such a cataclysmic event is actually through social media. America’s best hope is apparently in the hands of Facebook and Twitter users all over the world, as it will be their documentation of the destruction which will provide the fastest and most accurate proof of the oncoming wave.
This then leads to the second major issue – that of escape routes and planning. The only real ways to escape the disaster would be to gain much higher ground, which risks being trapped there once the waves have subsided, or get far enough inland to be beyond its reach. Both of those options involve mass evacuation which is difficult for two reasons. Firstly, the sheer number of people and the methods of transport available mean that there is likely to be gridlock on the roads and delays or even break downs on the rail line – which is the main escape route, according to the documentary. However, a second less predictable problem also lies in the way of safety, and that is mass delusion. Several studies have illustrated that when faced with the prospect of oncoming destruction, whole populations sometimes convince themselves that it will not happen. As a result, should the East coast of the US be destined for a future mega-tsunami, it might find the majority of its residents completely unruffled until they actually see the wave on the horizon.
Scientific conclusions have stated the Chilean disaster has actually impacted the structure of the Earth with the force of the collision between the tectonic plates creating a denser and more compact planet. This means that the Earth now spins slightly faster than before, and as such the length of a day has shortened by approximately 1.26 millionth of a second. Given that the mega-tsunami predicted in this documentary would be bigger than any wave in history, the future implications of such an event could impact more than just the East coast of the US, if it is indeed destined for such a calamitous natural attack, and have repercussions as yet beyond scientific knowledge. Therefore, while Could We Survive A Mega Tsunami?, should be taken with a healthy pinch of salt, the issues it raised should certainly be considered with a view to avoiding tragedies such as the one recently experienced in Chile and the countless others which have devastated whole countries in the process.
Commentary by Rhona Scullion