The earthquake which rocked Padang, western Sumatra in September last year killing more than 1000 people was not the 'great earthquake' which earth scientists are waiting for. In fact, it may have made the next massive earthquake more likely.
That is the key conclusion of a paper published January 18 in the journal Nature Geoscience.
Following its publication, Professor John McCloskey of the University of Ulster, who is the lead author of the study and an internationally respected authority on Sumatran earthquakes, has issued the following appeal to the international community.
He calls on governments and non-governmental organisations to take preparatory urgent action that will save lives in the next earthquake disaster rather than waiting until after it strikes.
He says: "We can't continue to refuse to accept the inevitable; earthquakes happen, they kill people, they will kill more and more people if we don't organise ourselves properly. We must start now."
Professor McCloskey and his group rapidly analysed the M9.2 earthquake that triggered the Indian Ocean 2004 Boxing Day tsunami and alerted the world to the threat of another large quake in the Sumatra region of the Indian Ocean 10 days before it struck. He is head of the Geophysics Research Group at Ulster's Environmental Sciences Research Institute.
Professor McCloskey says: "At the end of a week which has been dominated by the awful scenes from Haiti, the thought that other big earthquakes are just round the corner is a truly bleak picture.
"For some years now scientists have been warning of the build up of stress on one of the earth's great plate boundaries to the west of Sumatra in Indonesia. For more than 200 years the collision between the Indian ocean plate and the Asian plate has stored an enormous amount of energy.
"It's just like slowly drawing a bow. For hundreds of years the energy is stored as the two tectonic plates bend and deform. Then, in just a few seconds all this energy is released generating a massive earthquake and sometimes flexing the seafloor to create a tsunami.
"Off western Sumatra the bow is drawn tight. The last shock happened more than 200 years ago and the stresses are probably larger now than they were then; the earthquake must happen soon.
"The science of earthquakes is still on a steep learning curve and earthquake prediction is as far off as ever.
"Science and scientists do not have all the answers. We don't know where or when the next big earthquake will happen. We disagree on a lot of the details about how earthquakes work, how they start and how they stop but there are many things about which there is no disagreement.
"All the indicators are pointing in the same direction for western Sumatra. Another massive earthquake is due there and could happen literally any day.
"Scientists cannot forecast the exact size of the earthquake but in this case there is complete agreement that it will be very strong, probably bigger than magnitude 8.5, dwarfing the energy release in the Haitian quake. We also cannot say for sure what size the tsunami will be but it has the potential to be very destructive -- maybe even worse than 2004.
"But the future need not look like Haiti. We know this earthquake is coming and we might have years or even decades to prepare.
"Given the unfolding scenes of carnage following the Haiti earthquake and the completely inadequate speed of the international response, the responsibility on the Indonesian government, the international community and the international NGOs is enormous.
"We must work urgently to prepare for this earthquake if we are not to witness again the awful scenes of children dying for want of a few stitches or a cast for a broken leg.
"The September Padang earthquake and the tragedy of Haiti underline the importance of preparation. There are many things that can be done to reduce the impact of earthquakes. Many of these are low-tech methods that have been tried and tested.
"In an earthquake a table can save your life, its legs are extremely strong under compression so when the roof falls down the table provides a small air space, if you're in there you have a chance.
"It's also clear that we haven't organised ourselves sufficiently internationally.
"It was really disturbing to see children lying on the floor in hospitals with no pain relief, without any medical help at all. How many lives could have been saved if the international community had prepared properly for this event?
"Scientists can't tell where and when but I can tell you now that other earthquakes like this are absolutely certain. We can't continue to refuse to accept the inevitable; earthquakes happen, they kill people, they will kill more and more people if we don't organise ourselves properly. We must start now.
"It is an international disgrace that we appear not to have made the smallest progress in preparation .The 'international community' is very good at preparing for war but has failed completely to prepare to help the poor who are always the ones to suffer in these events.
"If we want to claim to be civilised we need to ensure that we never see these scenes again. Let's make our motto: 'We will do better next time'.
"The next time will be sooner than we like to think."
- McCloskey et al. The September 2009 Padang earthquake. Nature Geoscience, 2010; DOI: 10.1038/ngeo753
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