To learn from tragedies

by Michael Martin-Smith 

Editorial note: as promised Michael Martin-Smith sent us some comments and very useful suggestions. Dr. Martin-Smith - educational director of TdF - is a doctor in medicine, a non professional astronomer, and skilled in astrobiology.

I do not have much to add about the facts of 26 Dec, Adriano have covered it very well!

My main hope is that the disaster will encourage the nations of South Asia to work together to create earthquake/tsunami monitoring systems, educational programmes, and rapid communications systems to allow more lives to be saved in future events.

A village near the coast of Sumatra lies in ruin

Tsunamis travel at hundreds of kilometres per hour. Nonetheless, if the epicentre is out to sea, there can be 1-2 hours or even more before a tsunami arrives at a beach. Yet submarine Earthquakes can be detected in minutes by seisomographs placed on the seabed - while ocean monitoring satellites such as Topex and Seasat can measure the height of ocean waves to a few centimetres.

Indian space technology could probably do this job quite inexpensively.

More simply, if every beach or hotel carried a placard or poster saying: "If you see the sea retreat from the shore run inland as fast as you can", many people would be 1-2 kilometres from the shore before the tsunami arrived.

Also it is important NOT to go and explored the beach after the wave has retreated - there could well be a second or third and bigger wave. 

Many of the people who died could have run 1-2 kilometres inland in less than 10 minutes - if only they had been properly prepared. 

For the future, beaten earth paths could be prepared, leading to clearings, where fugitives could be registered and accounted for - as in a typical office firedrill, on a larger scale.

Many might be saved that way, and at least rescuers would learn early who had survived, and who to search for.

Other essential technical developments should include economical physical portable water cleansing systems; we have enormous amounts of water in these situations which is either salty or polluted, and so cannot be safely drunk.

I think work needs to be done to research membrane osmotic systems which could use local eg solar energy to generate clean water on site at economical cost.

Maybe work being done to make space stations or long duration Mars missions self supporting can help here?

In summary.

We cannot prevent such tragedies - but if improved international cooperation, education, technical research and development to assist recovery, and the spirit of popular worldwide generosity can lead to longterm results - some good perhaps can be wrested from this one. 

Tragedy can bring out the best or the worst in us Humans - it is up to us to make a choice!

Michael Martin-Smith

The countries affected by the dec 26th 2004 tsunami

[003.MMS.TDF.2005 - 05.01.2004]