Just before 7am on September 29, 2009, a magnitude 8 earthquake struck the sea floor in the central South Pacific, about 190kms south of Samoa. It was exactly the sort of earthquake – in fact, it was two almost simultaneous quakes – that create devastating tsunami.
The Earth’s crust tore apart, triggering a region-wide tsunami. Within minutes it inundated Samoa’s coastline, before rolling on to American Samoa and Tonga.
While a tsunami warning was issued by the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center and relayed by Samoan officials, it was not rebroadcast everywhere. Regardless, the tsunami arrived too quickly for many to escape. In Samoa, 189 people died when the tsunami reached up to 14 metres above normal sea level and many more were injured across the region. Hundreds of millions of dollars of damage was done.
Ten years on from this tragedy, it’s time to look back at the lessons we learned – and how they can help us adapt to a rapidly changing climate, which is making similar natural disasters more and more likely.
As is common after a major disaster, Samoa’s government and emergency services quickly began assessing the damage and the needs of affected communities, to direct relief and recovery efforts. The government did an excellent job given the logistical challenges that face small island developing states after such events.
It is also common for researchers from a wide range of disciplines, from earth sciences to engineering to health studies, to visit impacted areas to study the causes and effects of such disasters, and make suggestions to improve future disaster management planning and practice.
Such researcher-led field reconnaissance surveys are usually small, comprising just a few individual researchers and usually from the same discipline. These expeditions are quickly organised, and the researchers get in and out fast – too often focused on their own interests, and not working with the government or scientists of the affected country. This means serious ethical issues can arise.
Making waves: the tsunami risk in Australia
After this earthquake and tsunami, I thought we could do better.
I proposed bringing incoming researchers from multiple disciplines, to collaborate with local communities and Samoan researchers and officials. This proposal was accepted, and I was quickly appointed to head up what became the largest ever international post-tsunami survey team.
Our team ended up comprising nearly 200 local and international participants working in multidisciplinary teams for up to a month between October and November 2009.
Critically, for the first time, the team negotiated between incoming scientists with specific questions, and local scientists and the government to ensure their research really did benefit Samoan communities.
As team leader, I reported daily to the prime minister and King of Samoa updating them on research findings, gave local TV and radio interviews on how things were going and worked with researchers to nudge field activity in directions that benefited everyone.
At the end of the survey the team provided a report to the prime minister and government on our findings. This set a new global benchmark for how post-disaster surveys could be done.
As a consequence of this approach, I was appointed by the United Nations to co-lead a global working group that rewrote the handbook on how post-disaster surveys should be organised and operated.
We learned so much from the Samoan survey team, and from continuing research efforts over the last ten years following other major disasters such as the 2011 Japan earthquake-tsunami and 2013 Philippines Typhoon Haiyan disasters. Key lessons include that:
geological studies show us these large hazard events occur much more frequently than we realised before
natural ecosystems on which humans depend exhibit both great vulnerability and resilience to the forces of nature, but human management of those ecosystems really affects resilience
different types of buildings experience damage and destruction in different ways. This knowledge can be used in land use zoning and improving building codes and design standards
despite continuing public education campaigns about natural hazards and disasters, individuals, families and communities still don’t always do what emergency management agencies want them to do (for example, evacuate to high ground if you feel a strong earthquake at the coast)
human beings are the most remarkable of species – capable of incredible resilience and generosity in the aftermath of disasters
there is still so much we do not understand about natural hazards and disasters
as a global community, we must work hard to reduce inequality which makes too many people vulnerable to disasters, and rise to the challenge presented by human-induced climate change.
90% of recorded major disasters caused by natural hazards from 1995 to 2015 were linked to climate and weather including floods, storms, heatwaves and drought.
A heart wrenching factor is the poorest people around the world always bear the greatest burden of loss to natural disasters due to inequality and poverty. Layered on top of the particular vulnerability of poorer people to disasters, global statistics show the Asian region experiences the most disasters of all types.
Earth is unique, dynamic, fragile and dangerous. Human activity is driving changes that, if not addressed soon, will result in disasters in the near future that are outside our experience and capacity to cope with.
A catastrophic event occurred on Earth 66 million years ago. A huge meteorite struck our planet in what is now Mexico, triggering mass extinctions of the dinosaurs and most other living creatures.
A new paper shows the first recorded victims of this impact were fish and other marine animals, stranded by a wave that left them high and dry in an ancient river in North Dakota, at a site called Tanis.
For scientists unpacking the evidence around the event, a full picture of the cataclysm has involved looking into the details of planetary surface physics during giant impacts.
But beyond the first layer of fascinating results – little glass impact beads stuck in the gills of fish, for example – one really interesting aspect of this work is around how water behaves when it’s exposed to extreme forces.
If you’ve never heard of a form of wave called a seiche, this is your chance to catch up.
The Chicxulub meteorite crater in coastal Mexico is strongly associated with the mass extinction of the dinosaurs (and 75% of all species), 66 million years ago.
The first victims were right at the site. Any marine creatures close to the point of impact would have been instantly vaporised (sadly leaving no fossil record), along with much of the surrounding rock.
Around the periphery, the energy of the impact melted and ejected tonnes of molten rock, which together with condensing rock vapour, formed little glass beads (“impact spherules”) that can be found in a layer around the world at this time.
The shock wave itself pulverised the adjacent rock enough to metamorphise it, forming features like “shocked quartz” – fractured quartz indicative of enormous pressures. It carried the energy equivalent of a magnitude 11 earthquake – 1,000 times more energy than the 2004 Boxing Day quake which killed almost 230,000 people.
North Dakota is more than 3,000km away from the Chicxulub crater, and was a similar distance at the time of the meteorite impact event.
Separating them back then, however, was a vast inland sea that covered much of midwest USA, from Texas up to the Dakotas. Feeding into that inland sea was a river system upon which the Tanis site in North Dakota was formed. This site has preserved the earliest recorded deaths of the Chicxulub impact.
The site itself is unusual. The deposition of sediments can tell us about the flow of water in the river.
Most ripples (or flame structures) indicate a southerly flow of the river before and after the Tanis deposit. However, these flow indicators point the wrong way during the time the Tanis unit formed. Water was flowing upstream, fast.
At the site are also found the fossilised remains of species, like sharks and rays, that occupied brackish water, rather than the freshwater of the stream. These had to be brought inland from the sea by something, and left to die, smothered in sediment, on a riverbank.
The obvious candidate is an impact tsunami. Perhaps the impact of the meteorite hitting the ocean generated a huge wave that carried fish from the inland sea, and against the flow of fresh water, to leave the creatures stranded in Dakota?
But there are problems with this hypothesis. The tiny impact spherules that formed in Chicxulub can be found throughout the deposit (many clogging the gills of fish), and pockmarks in the sedimentary layers means rocks were still raining down. This means the surge of water occurred within around 15 minutes to two hours of the impact itself.
For a tsunami to travel the 3,000km from the point of impact, to the Tanis site across the inland sea, would have taken almost 18 hours. Something else killed these creatures.
The seismic waves from the impact would have travelled through the Earth much faster than a tsunami travelled across water – and arrived near Tanis between 6-13 minutes later. The authors of the Tanis study suggest these seismic waves may have triggered an unusual type of wave in the inland sea, called a seiche.
Seiches are standing waves in bodies of water, and are often found in large lake systems during strong winds. The winds themselves cause waves and water displacement, which can have a harmonic effect, causing the water to slosh side to side like an overfull bathtub.
However, earthquakes are also known to cause seiches. Particularly dramatic seiches are often seen in swimming pools during large quakes. The interaction of the seismic wave’s period (the time between two waves) with the timescale of waves sloshing in a pool can amplify their effect.
But seiches can affect larger bodies of water too.
During the 2011 Tohuku earthquake in Japan, seiches over 1m high were observed in Norwegian fjords more than 8,000km away. With an energy more than 1,000 times greater, the Chicxulub event could quite conceivably have generated bigger than 10 metre swells in the North American inland sea – the scale implied by the deposition of the Tanis site.
Given a seiche can be driven by seismic waves, it’s conceivable that one drove the surge that stranded marine creatures at Tanis, resulting in the short time between the impact debris and the surge deposit.
But a lot remains unclear regarding exactly what did happen 66 million years ago.
Could the fish stranding have been driven by the first seismic activity to appear at Tanis (the P and S waves in science parlance, which travel through the interior of the Earth, arriving at Tanis 6 and 10 minutes after impact, respectively), or the more destructive but slower surface waves at the top of the Earth’s crust, which arrived 13 minutes after impact?
How might seiche waves have interacted with global hurricane-strength wind storms caused by the impact?
Would the period of sloshing of a seiche be consistent with the scale of the inland sea? (The inland sea was much larger than most lakes seiches are traditionally observed in – and may or may not have been open to the ocean). Given so little is really known about the dimensions of the inland sea, this is hard to constrain.
The Tanis site has given us an incredible window into the first few hours of a mass-extinction. But it has also highlighted how little we have probed into the fatal surface physics of these extreme events.
It is often said that we know more about the surface of other planets than we do about our own deep ocean. To overcome this problem, we embarked on a voyage on CSIRO’s research vessel, the Southern Surveyor, to help map Australia’s continental slope – the region of seafloor connecting the shallow continental shelf to the deep oceanic abyssal plain.
The majority of our seafloor maps depict most of the ocean as blank and featureless (and the majority still do!). These maps are derived from wide-scale satellite data, which produce images showing only very large features such as sub-oceanic mountain ranges (like those seen on Google Earth). Compare that with the resolution of land-based imagery, which allows you to zoom in on individual trees in your own neighbourhood if you want to.
But using a state-of-the art sonar system attached to the Southern Surveyor, we have now studied sections of the seafloor in more detail. In the process, we found evidence of huge underwater landslides close to shore over the past 25,000 years.
Generally triggered by earthquakes, landslides like these can cause tsumanis.
For 90% of the ocean, we still struggle to identify any feature the size of, say, Canberra. For this reason, we know more about the surface of Venus than we do about our own ocean’s depths.
As we sailed the Southern Surveyor in 2013, a multibeam sonar system attached to the vessel revealed images of the ocean floor in unprecedented detail. Only 40-60km offshore from major cities including Sydney, Wollongong, Byron Bay and Brisbane, we found huge scars where sediment had collapsed, forming submarine landslides up to several tens of kilometres across.
Submarine landslides, as the name suggests, are underwater landslides where seafloor sediments or rocks move down a slope towards the deep seafloor. They are caused by a variety of different triggers, including earthquakes and volcanic activity.
As we processed the incoming data to our vessel, images of the seafloor started to become clear. What we discovered was that an extensive region of the seafloor offshore New South Wales and Southern Queensland had experienced intense submarine landsliding over the past 15 million years.
From these new, high-resolution images, we were able to identify over 250 individual historic submarine landslide scars, a number of which had the potential to generate a tsunami. The Byron Slide in the image below is a good example of one of the “smaller” submarine landslides we found – at 5.6km long, 3.5km wide, 220m thick and 1.5 cubic km in volume. This is equivalent to almost 1,000 Melbourne Cricket Grounds.
The historic slides we found range in size from less than 0.5 cubic km to more than 20 cubic km – the same as roughly 300 to 12,000 Melbourne Cricket Grounds. The slides travelled down slopes that were less than 6° on average (a 10% gradient), which is low in comparison to slides on land, which usually fail on slopes steeper than 11°.
We found several sites with cracks in the seafloor slope, suggesting that these regions may be unstable and ready to slide in the future. However, it is likely that these submarine landslides occur sporadically over geological timescales, which are much longer than a human lifetime. At a given site, landslides might happen once every 10,000 years, or even less frequently than this.
Since returning home, our investigations have focused on how, when, and why these submarine landslides occur. We found that east Australia’s submarine landslides are unexpectedly recent, at less than 25,000 years old, and relatively frequent in geological terms.
We also found that for a submarine landslide to generate along east Australia today, it is highly likely that an external trigger is needed, such as an earthquake of magnitude 7 or greater. The generation of submarine landslides is associated with earthquakes from other places in the world.
Submarine landslides can lead to tsunamis ranging from small to catastrophic. For example, the 2011 Tohoku tsunami resulted in more than 16,000 individuals dead or missing, and is suggested to be caused by the combination of an earthquake and a submarine landslide that was triggered by an earthquake. Luckily, Australia experiences few large earthquakes, compared with places such as New Zealand and Peru.
We are concerned about the hazard we would face if a submarine landslide were to occur in the future, so we model what would happen in likely locations. Modelling is our best prediction method and requires combining seafloor maps and sediment data in computer models to work out how likely and dangerous a landslide threat is.
Our current models of tsunamis generated by submarine landslides suggest that some sites could represent a future tsunami risk for Australia’s east coast. We are currently investigating exactly what this threat might be, but we suspect that such tsunamis pose little to no immediate threat to the coastal communities of eastern Australia.
That said, submarine landslides are an ongoing, widespread process on the east Australian continental slope, so the risk cannot be ignored (by scientists, at least).
Of course it is hard to predict exactly when, where and how these submarine landslides will happen in future. Understanding past and potential slides, as well as improving the hazard and risk evaluation posed by any resulting tsunamis, is an important and ongoing task.
In Australia, more than 85% of us live within 50km of the coast. Knowing what is happening far beneath the waves is a logical next step in the journey of scientific discovery.
Samantha Clarke, Associate Lecturer in Education Innovation, University of Sydney; Hannah Power, Lecturer in Coastal Science, University of Newcastle; Kaya Wilson, , University of Newcastle, and Tom Hubble, Associate professor, University of Sydney
When a foreign species arrives in a new environment and spreads to cause some form of economic, health, or ecological harm, it’s called a biological invasion. Often stowing away among the cargo of ships and aircraft, such invaders cause billions of dollars of economic loss annually across the globe and have devastating impacts on the environment.
While the number of introductions which eventually lead to such invasions is rising across the globe, most accidental introduction events involve small numbers of individuals and species showing up in a new area.
But new research published today in Science has found that hundreds of marine species travelled from Japan to North America in the wake of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami (which struck the east coast of Japan with devastating consequences).
Marine introductions result from biofouling, the process by which organisms start growing on virtually any submerged surface. Within days a slimy bacterial film develops. After months to a few years (depending on the water temperature) fully formed communities may be found, including algae, molluscs such as mussels, bryozoans, crustaceans, and other animals.
Current biosecurity measures, such as antifouling on ships and border surveillance, are designed to deal with a steady stream of potential invaders. But they are ill-equipped to deal with an introduction event of the scale recorded along most of the North American coast. This would be just as true for Australia, with its extensive coastlines, as it is for North America.
This research, led by James Carlton of Williams College, shows that over a few years after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, many marine organisms arrived along the west coast of North America on debris derived from human activity. The debris ranged from small pieces of plastic to buoys, to floating docks and damaged marine vessels. All of these items harboured organisms. Across the full range of debris surveyed, scores of individuals from roughly 300 species of marine creatures arrived alive. Most of them were new to North America.
The tsunami swept coastal infrastructure and many human artefacts out to sea. Items that had already been in the water before the tsunami carried their marine communities along with them. The North Pacific Current then transported these living communities across the Pacific to Alaska, British Columbia, Oregon, Washington and California.
What makes this process unusual is the way a natural extreme event – the earthquake and associated tsunami – gave rise to an extraordinarily large introduction event because of its impact on coastal infrastructure. The researchers argue that this event is of unprecedented magnitude, constituting what they call “tsunami-driven megarafting”: rafting being the process by which organisms may travel across oceans on debris – natural or otherwise.
It’s not known how many of these new species will establish themselves and spread in their new environment. But, given what we know about the invasion process, it’s certain at least some will. Often, establishment and initial population growth is hidden, especially in marine species. Only once it is either costly or impossible to do something about a new species, is it detected.
Biosecurity surveillance systems are designed to overcome this problem, but surveillance of an entire coast for multiple species is a significant challenge.
Perhaps one of the largest questions the study raises is whether this was a once off event. Might similar future occurrences be expected? Given the rapid rate of coastal infrastructure development, the answer is clear: this adds a new dimension to coastal biosecurity that will have to be considered.
Investment in coastal planning and early warning systems will help, as will reductions in plastic pollution. But such investment may be of little value if action is not taken to adhere to, and then exceed, nationally determined contributions to the Paris Agreement. Without doing so, a climate change-driven sea level rise of more than 1 m by the end of the century may be expected. This will add significantly to the risks posed by the interactions between natural extreme events and the continued development of coastal infrastructure. In other words, this research has uncovered what might be an increasingly common new ecological process in the Anthropocene – the era of human-driven global change.
The earthquake occurred off the west coast of southern Mexico 69 km below the surface, with a magnitude of 8.1, making it the largest earthquake worldwide since 2015, when a magnitude 8.4 generated a tsunami off the coast of Chile.
It will be some time before we know the full extent of the earthquake damage in Mexico. Recent assessments recorded more than 60 deaths and significant damage.
The earthquake also generated a tsunami with a series of waves over one metre high striking the Mexico coast over a period of more than six hours.
The wave travelled west across the Pacific Ocean towards New Zealand, but initial warnings triggered for that country have now been cancelled.
An area of about 200 by 50 km was pushed up by the earthquake, moving the water overlying it. The sea floor was uplifted by only a few metres, but this is enough to displace several cubic kilometres of water and send a series of waves outwards from the earthquake epicentre.
The tsunami waves travel away from the earthquake epicentre in all directions. The height of the tsunami waves on shore depends on several factors, such as the distance and direction from the earthquake epicentre, the depth and shape of the sea floor, and shape of the coast line.
Read more: Explainer: how to prepare for a tsunami
The remainder are caused by underwater landslides, volcanic eruptions, and (rarely) meteorite impacts.
Only the largest earthquakes (more than 7.5 magnitude) are capable of generating a tsunami that will travel more than 100 km. About two tsunamis occur every year which cause damage near their source, and about two per decade cause damages or deaths on distant shores (more than 1000 km from the source).
The earthquake in Mexico was detected by international seismic networks within minutes, immediately activating regional and national tsunami warning systems. Mexico is a member of the Pacific Tsunami Warning System, which has two regional centres – one in Hawaii and one in Japan.
These centres monitor the seismic networks 24/7 so that they can react immediately when an event is detected. Many countries have 24/7 national tsunami warning centres as well. Each country and local government area then decides how to respond to the information and whether to evacuate coastal areas in case of a tsunami.
Following an earthquake, a warning message is immediately broadcast to national and local government agencies and disaster management offices. Over the next few hours, tsunami warning centre staff will monitor the global network of sea level stations including offshore tsunameter buoys which will tell them if a tsunami wave was generated.
Estimates of the earthquake magnitude and location are revised hourly or as more information becomes available, and this updated information is broadcast to authorities and the media. The information continues to be reviewed as the first waves reach the shoreline, helping to provide better wave height estimates for countries further from the earthquake epicentre.
At the local level, responses differ from country to country but the warning messages are usually broadcast through media channels including television, radio and internet. Many people will also receive information through social media.
Some countries send alerts directly to cell phones, and tourist areas may have tsunami sirens on popular beaches.
Fortunately on this occasion the tsunami triggered was only small. But the human impact of the earthquake itself is high, and the death toll will probably get worse.
I ran out of time yesterday to post about my walk up Yacaaba Headland and how I only just avoided being in a storm that was moving in. So today (it’s actually the 27th July 2012 as I type away) I must get two days of posts done, even if I slip this one in back in time, so to speak (as you can with the post time when posting).
So I decided to do the Yacaaba Headland walk just before lunch and had lunch in the carpark, while reading the paper. Nothing too healthy – I tend to eat far too much junk when I’m on holidays. So it was a bacon & egg roll, as well as a couple of potato scallops and some chips (and coke of course) See Picture at Left. It was really brunch and I needed the energy boost to accomplish the walk. Sounds…
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