January 5, 2005
Its hard to image a more terrible start to the new year for so many around the Indian Ocean than that of the recent quake and tsunamis. Already, for Sumatra alone, the official death toll is over 94,000 - and there is little doubt that once final numbers are confirmed this toll on human life will be very much higher.
As everyone will have seen on international news, the epicenter of the earthquake and after shocks occurred between 50 and 100 km off Sumatra’s north-west coast, around the province of Aceh. While this region is no stranger to quakes, situated almost on top of the junction of three of the world’s most active tectonic plates, the size of the quake on this occasion is hard to conceive. Measuring 9.0 on the Richter scale (an exponential scale incidentally, where a 9.0 is 32 times stronger than a 8.0) this earthquake was greater than the total of all the measurable earthquakes in the world over the last 5 years.
As the quake occurred on the morning of the 26th December, the earths surface (in this case at the bottom of the Indian Ocean) was pushed upwards by tens of metres, displacing billions of tons of water in all directions. While still far out at sea this initial wave would have been almost imperceptible, perhaps only a slight swell in the ocean’s flatness when viewed from above. However, as the swell (traveling at more than 500 km per hour) traveled outwards from the epicenter, into the shallower region around Aceh’s coastline, the volume of water was transformed, forced up into a wave of epic proportions (some first-hand reports estimate a height of 15 metres as it crashed into coastal villages of north west Aceh). The hundreds of thousands of people on this coastline, presumably a large number of which would have been outside inspecting quake damage at the time, nervous of returning to buildings and too dazed to consider the possibilities of finding higher ground, were swamped by the colossal waves with no warning whatsoever. Video images of waves hitting Phuket in Thailand and Sri Lanka on the other side of the Indian Ocean, while also deadly, would have paled in comparison to those slamming into the island of Sumatra. It hardly bares imaging how little chance of survival people had on this stretch of the coast.
The waves were so powerful that the map of Sumatra has now changed. The lives and hopes of millions of people have been wiped out in one morning. One of the most sobering images that I have seen is a high resolution IKONOS satellite image of Lho’ Nga (about 20 km from Banda Aceh town) – a place that I grew up in and know well, living for a couple of years with my parents and sisters in a house only 20 metres from the sea. The before-and-after images (view at http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Newsroom/NewImages/images.php3?img_id=16777) show clearly that an entire village, coastline and critical farm lands and rice fields have just disappeared - without even a trace. A military barracks in the village (so far the only accurate data that is available) lost more than 390 of its 400 men. The cement factory just down the road lost most of its staff, including several of my father’s old colleagues. The local harbour was destroyed and a 6,700 ton cement ship rolled over like a toy boat, killing all but four of the crew. This same intensity of damage has occurred all along the coast of north western Sumatra, taking out bridges, roads, homes and infrastructure - leaving it isolated, wild and desperate. The true extent of the devastation will take many weeks to confirm accurately, but for sure it has irreversibly changed the face of Sumatra and its people forever.
I can hardly think of anyone I know here who has not been touched by personal tragedy during the last few days – seemingly everybody has either lost friends or relatives to the tsunami. The only relief for us is that the Program’s staff and operations have not been directly affected, with most of our activities focused in the southern two-thirds of the island. In that sense our operations continue as before, as much as they can, though with some trepidation now for ongoing work in a couple of the coastal regions we are currently surveying and assisting to manage. Incidentally, wildlife has probably not been anywhere near as badly affected, with evidence of a “six-sense” or sensitivity to seismic vibrations sending all types of animals scurrying to highland safety in the minutes after the quake and before the waves struck.
This however, takes nothing away from the enormous sympathy and sorrow that we all deeply feel for the many human victims and their families. Our condolences and support are sent to all those that have suffered or are continuing to experience the agony and anguish of losing loved ones. These people and communities need all the support they can get right now, so consider sending a donation to any of the reliable funding channels that are open and supporting the aid efforts in Sumatra. If you would like more information on how you might be able to help please get in touch and we can pass on details of charities with a particular focus on Sumatra. Natural disasters on this scale occur only once in a life-time, or only in films, and it’s the very least we can do to seize this desperate opportunity to show our solidarity with the millions of people who have had their lives washed away.
Neil Franklin, Ph.D
Director - Indonesia Programs
The Tiger Foundation - Sumatran Tiger Trust