Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Prepare for the Worst! Tsunamis

"Hmm... did I leave the water running?"
I now present to you the return of my series on natural disasters, Prepare for the Worst! This installment focuses on another one of nature’s many threats to the Pacific Northwest, tsunamis.

Despite having a superfluous ‘T’ in its spelling that is ignored when pronounced, tsunamis are one disaster should not be ignored. They are definitely one of the worst disasters that an area can face given their long term effects beyond initial destruction. This can include lack of clean drinking water, sediment deposits, destruction of local agriculture and marine life, and, of course, flooding.

I don’t know about you, but something about tsunamis don’t exactly make me want to grab my swim trunks, snorkel, water wings, and jump in.

Warning Signs

You may be sitting there at your computer, chuckling to yourself, wondering how someone could not know that a tsunami is coming. I mean, honestly, it’s a giant wall of water. How do you miss that?

The only response I have to that question is you may be over estimating the critical thinking skills of the overall population. That being said, the warning signs posted by King County’s Office of Emergency Management of tsunamis are pretty straightforward, so even the densest segments of the population could probably figure out something is going on around them. I've even listed them in order of urgency, so if you find yourself up to warning sign #4, you better move your ass to safety.

Warning Sign #1 Earthquakes
Earthquakes are the Nelson Munz of Natural Disasters.

It is sort of a cruel joke that nature plays on us that one natural disaster can lead to another. In this sense, earthquakes are the big bully of the Earth’s school campus. They have the power to cause all sorts of havoc, such as, volcanic eruptions, power outages, land slides, and tsunamis, to name just a few. So, if you feel the ground shaking and live near a large body of water, be prepared for the possible after effects.

Wait a tick, does this mean that every earthquake near the coast is going to lead to a tsunami? Of course not, but certain types of earthquakes are more likely to generate a tsunami than others. An earthquake has to occur underneath or near the ocean to generate a tsunami. Well, duh. It has to be pretty strong (at least a 7 on the Richter scale) and/or create vertical movement of the sea floor.

This last point about the movement of the sea floor is interesting and probably has some explanation rooted in physics that I don’t understand. However, I know that if you drop a ball in a glass of water (creating vertical movement) you’re going to create a bigger splash than if you move it from side to side (creating horizontal movement). At the very least you’ll have to create much more force horizontally to get the same initial effect as the ball drop. There’s your simple at-home science experiment for the day. Enjoy.

Warning Sign #2 Tone Alert Radios

King County also recommends everyone buy one of these fancy Tone Alert Radios in order to be notified of any local imminent disasters. These radios sure sound nice, and apparently every school in King County has one, but I challenge you to find one friend that owns this radio. After a quick online search, the Weather Radio Store popped up (which seems to have realized a niche market exists out there for people who want to Prepare for the Worst! Sorry...)

On the Weather Radio Store's site it seems these radios range from $30-$80. The $80 model is endorsed by the American Red Cross and can be powered by battery, USB/AC adapter, crank charge, or solar power. Impressive array of charging options, but why not just get another radio for half that price (and half the weight) with the same features? You could even spend your savings on extra batteries (conveniently sold on the same website). This is a great example illustrating that as great as solar power is, more effort needs to be put forth to make it cheaper, otherwise it will never be a viable option for everyone.

Warning Sign #3 Warning Sirens
You don't wanna see what'll happen at 4:00.

Most places that are more likely to have a tsunami occur have some sort of warning siren or sound which upon hearing, the whole town collectively craps themselves. On the City of Seattle waterfronts, it is the sound of Westminster Chimes. Yes, because chimes are the sound that most people associate with incoming doom and destruction.

Warning Sign #4 Quickly Receding Water

Picture yourself walking on a beach shore. The water suddenly recedes out farther than you've ever seen. How exciting! You can now explore all the marine life on the shore usually hidden by the surf. As you're checking out that snazzy sea anemone chilling on a rock, a large shadow seems to hover over everything, it's a tsunami! Wham! You've just been crushed by a thirty foot wall of water and you're dead.

Sadly, this was the reality for far too many people in various parts of Southeast Asia in 2004. There were no tsunami warning systems in the Indian Ocean at that time to warn people from the shore, despite the fact that earthquakes of similar magnitude to this one strike the Indian Ocean quite frequently. In most disaster occasions, nature will often give us signals and warning signs to let us know where it will strike next by striking the same places again and again.

In fact, an aboriginal tribe on an island near the epicenter of the earthquake in 2004 evacuated after the initial shaking of the quake, but before the tsunami struck. Their folklore told of a similar incident in 1907, they recognized the similar signs and reacted appropriately.

Don't get me wrong, what happened in 2004 was a terrible tragedy that affected countless thousands of people, but it didn't have to be as severe as it turned out. It is up to all of us to learn from these events and Prepare for the Worst! (Sorry again, last time I promise.)

How Do I Prepare for a Giant Unstoppable Wall of Water?

How does one prepare for a giant wall of water moving faster than little Bieber's music career? Be aware of the warning signs. Know that time is not your friend in the case of a tsunami. In 2004, the tsunami hit as soon as fifteen minutes after the earthquake in some areas and hours in others.

I'm not saying that you absolutely must go out and buy a Tone Alert Radio right now, but use some common sense. If you hear a warning siren, or see the water receding quickly and unusually far out, then get the hell away from the coast and find higher ground. Do not stick around to watch the tsunami from a nearby cliff (i.e the coast) because waves following the initial one could be larger and sweep you right off your little perch. Or worse, the cliff side could be a victim to nature's ugly hidden step child, erosion, and wash away underneath your flip flops.

Of course, major tsunamis like the one in 2004 are quite rare, and naturally only those living near large bodies of water need to fear them year round (my loyal readers in Kansas City and Omaha, Nebraska can ignore this post). However, if you do live near or plan on traveling to a coastline, pay attention to warnings posted, ask locals about where to go and what to do in case of a tsunami. Those of you heading to the lovely Washington State coast can look for these signs alerting you which way is the quickest out of town and harms way.

"Dude! Let's get Pizza!"
Now that you have the knowledge to sufficiently escape a tsunami. Go take a surfing or scuba diving course, because the beach and water is meant to be enjoyed. Make friends with guys that look like Spicoli and enjoy a slice of delicious pizza while watching the sunset.  

Always remember bro, hang loose and evacuate quickly.

1 comment:

  1. Fantastic read, through and through. I'm fond of the shout-out to erosion, nature's silent killer! (I should trademark that phrase before someone takes it)

    I'll do my best to explain the physics behind a tsunami. It's about displacement. When a chunk of the sea floor suddenly shoots up, all the water above it shoots up along with it. After the water is displaced, it runs for lower ground, just like a mountain stream. The water that runs down from the lifted sea floor is what makes a tsunami.

    Compounding things is that as a tsunami approaches a coastline, the ocean depth gets shallower and shallower. This causes a similar effect to if you throw a ball against a ramp - you might throw it straight at the ramp, but it will pop up in the air, instead of straight back at you. The upward slope of the sea floor causes the huge waves.

    I found this fun flash application that illustrates the physics:

    But really, Prepare for the Worst! I know I'm not going to debate the nature of the shaking if I'm near the coast. I'm running for the hills.