Evidence for past tsunamis

Since the Indian Ocean disaster of 26 December 2004, coastal areas world wide are increasingly examined for signs of past tsunamis. Much the most common focus is on large boulders on low-relief shorelines never subject to glaciation. On the Bahamas large blocks of coral scattered above sea level suggest past tsunamis perhaps caused by collapse of volcanoes on Atlantic islands such as the Canaries or Azores. Yet, ordinary storm waves, if focused by coastal inlets can literally blast large boulders from well-jointed outcrops and carry them hundreds of metres inland. So peculiar boulders on a coast do not necessarily show that a tsunami once struck, although many around the shores of eastern Britain may well have been dislodged by tsunami triggered by a submarine landslide off western Norway about 7 thousand years ago. In an attempt to get more reliable signs of past tsunamis, the devastated coasts of northern Sumatra and western Thailand have been searched for tangible signs of the 2004 event (Monecke, K. et al. 2008. A 1,000-year sediment record of tsunami recurrence in northern Sumatra. Nature, v. 455, p. 1232-1234. Jankaew, K. et al. 2008. Medieval forewarning of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami in Thailand. Nature, v. 455, p. 1228-1231).

Both teams homed in on boggy depressions or swales between fossil beach ridges on broad low-lying shores. There, debris carried by the huge 2004 waves could be trapped and then preserved by regrowth of vegetation. The generally low energy in the swales is also likely to prevent erosion, so that deep superficial sediment can build up that may preserve signs of past tsunamis. This focus paid dividends, in the form of coarse sand just beneath a regrown vegetation mat, with distinctive signs that the sand had been deposited by transport from the seaward side of swales. Coring and trenching then unearthed deeper, older sands with exactly the same structure. The surprise was the antiquity of the tsunami sands: layers carbon-dated around 1300-1400, 780-990 AD and 250 BC. Clearly, more extensive surveys of this kind are necessary wherever coastal conditions permit good preservation. That would give an idea of the periodicity of earthquakes and landslips energetic enough to produce coastal catastrophes around major ocean basins. Yet there is a danger: if, as suggested by the Thai and Indonesia data, several centuries have lapsed between such dreadful events, it presents an excuse not to install costly monitoring devices or permanently shift coastal townships to foretell or prevent future disasters.

See also: Bondevik, S. 2008. The sands of tsunami time. Nature, v. 455, p. 1183-1184.

Chinese PM is a geo

Like me, many EPN readers may have admired the swift, effective and open response of the government of the People’s Republic of China to the Szechuan earthquake disaster in May 2008. They may also be surprised to learn that Wen Jiabao, the prime minister of the PRC, is geologist who worked for 14 years with a provincial geological survey. To read an abbreviated transcript of a dialogue between the editor of Science and Wen Jiabao was refreshing, and quite probably unique in a world where most senior politicians are, to say the least, not science-savvy (Alberts, B. & Jiabao, W. 2008. China’s scientist premier Q&A. Science, v. 322, p. 362-364; full transcript at www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/322/5900/362/DC1).


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