Search on for past tsunamis

Wandoor is a small village and beach near the ...

Relics of the 2004 tsunami on the coast of South Andaman Island. Image via Wikipedia

Spurred by the horrific scenes and death toll wrought by tsunamis following  the 26 December 2004 Sumatran and 11 March 2011 Sendai giant earthquakes, environmental geologists are beginning to look for signs that can reveal past tsunamis in order to evaluate risk from region to region. Before the 11 March disaster Japanese scientists had in fact traced signs of a tsunami in 869 CE and showed that it had reached almost as far inland as that following the Sendai earthquake. There are a number of geological features that mark the wake of a tsunami: dislodgement of huge boulders on rocky shores; signs of powerful scouring of sallow marine sediments as water recedes from the land; chaotic sediments made up of a jumble of clasts; sediments associated with high-energy flow interleaved with those that mark long periods of low energy deposition; marine faunas unexpectedly found in otherwise terrestrial sediments.

Shortly after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunamis Indian and Japanese scientists visited the Andaman Islands, which were at the northern end of the megathrust deformation, to seek onshore signs of previous catastrophes (Malik, J.N. et al. 2011. Geologic evidence for two pre-2004 earthquakes during recent centuries near Port Blair, South Andaman Island, India. Geology, v. 39, p. 559-562). They discovered a layer of ripped-up lumps of mud set in a sandy matrix dumped on a low-energy black mud, the sandy unit showing inclined stratification that dips inland. All the evidence pointed to deposition by a tsunami. An earlier event reveals swamping of older non-marine sediments by the black mud unit that contains brackish-marine diatoms; a probable result of sudden subsidence linked to an earthquake affecting the Andamans in much the same was as did that of December 2004. The mud had also been intruded by a body of structureless sand , probably resulting from liquefaction as a result of the seismicity. Dating the events using radiocarbon methods proved difficult. Although dating of the earlier event suggested an event around 1670 CE, carbon from the later one gave much older ages, suggesting that the tsunami had ripped up older sediments and redeposited them. However it may be correlated with the major Arakan earthquake of 2 April 1762 close to the coast of Myanmar.

Evidence of this kind can easily be overlooked, and rather less research centres on recent coastal-zone sediments than on sedimentary rocks of the distant past. Areas where such signs of neotectonics have been sought assiduously are those surrounding coastal nuclear installations, but largely to check for evidence of recent faulting that may indicate potential seismic threat but not tsunamis. Clearly it was that kind of threat that decisively put the Japanese Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station out of action and almost resulted in complete melt-down in March 2011, and severely set back construction of an advanced fast-breeder reactor on the eastern coat of India at Kalpakkam, near Chennai in 2004.


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