Scitech  What about next time?

Listening to research predictions necessary in preparing for natural disasters

The recent earthquake in Haiti has occupied newspaper front pages since its occurrence in early January. Through all the discussion of the devastating effects of the disaster and the slow-in-coming international aid and relief, though, there has been little discourse about whether or not the earthquake could have been prevented. Despite Haiti’s vulnerabilities, one would like to think that the effects might not have been as widespread or devastating if the international community had been warned of impending destruction. In fact, we were warned.

In 2008, five scientists at the Caribbean Geological Conference stated that the fault zone on the south side of Hispaniola Island, which Haiti shares with the Dominican Republic, posed a major seismic hazard. Not unexpectedly, the January 12 earthquake was due to that same fault line, known as the Enriquillo-Plantain Garden fault zone. Caught between the tectonic plates of North America and the Caribbean, the island experienced a shock measuring 7.0 on the Richter scale.

Geologists were not surprised by the quake, as this region is known to be very seismically active. The last major earthquake in the region occurred in 1946 and created a tsunami near Hispaniola that left nearly 20,000 people homeless. The tectonic plates along the fault – which, it should be noted, lies directly under the city of Port-au-Prince – have been known to slide past one another in an east-west direction. The problem, however, with predicting an earthquake along what is known as a strike-slip boundary is that the strike can remain dormant for hundreds of years. Although it has been documented that stress was building up along the faults of the boundaries (where the parts of the earth’s crust stick to each other), there was no way to know when a strong movement would cause that pressure to be released.

Similarly, before the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, there had been warnings of stress build-up along the strike-slip boundary located west of Indonesia. The tension grew for over 200 years before being released in an underwater earthquake, which caused the seabed to flex and resulted in the natural disaster that killed over 220,000 people.

According to a correspondence in the February 2010 issue of Nature Geoscience, however, the long-awaited, dreaded earthquake of Indonesia has yet to come. The researchers, including John McCloskey of the Environmental Sciences Research Institute at the University of Ulster, conclude that the region’s “strain-energy budget remains substantially unchanged and the threat of a great tsunamigenic earthquake…is unabated.”

Until the technology used to predict earthquakes can be fine-tuned to predict not just where, but more specifically, when natural disasters will occur, we must remember that such disasters are not just probable, but inevitable. The importance of preparation cannot be emphasized enough. With known regions of impact, we can start to organize our relief efforts before they even happen.

Although it takes considerable amounts of money to reinforce the infrastructure of an already impoverished country, there are many other methods that can reduce the effects of otherwise completely devastating catastrophes. In the case of Indonesia, the country will hopefully benefit from its plan to strengthen tsunami warning systems, which sense trembling in the earth’s crust and issue warnings to civilians along the coastlines through speakers and megaphones when the system senses an earthquake that could lead to a wave, urging people to travel inland immediately. Other low-tech methods that are cheap but effective include earthquake tables, the legs of which are built to withstand strong compression in case roofs cave in, and safe-houses, which are reinforced structures built for people to run to during the earthquake and aftershocks.

As an international community, we can no longer say we have not been warned. Relief efforts are slow and after a devastating blow, the situation only worsens. The problem lies in targeting the regions that are most at risk – geologically and structurally – and actually instating preventative methods now.