"War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things: the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks nothing worth a war, is worse." --John Stuart Mill (1806 - 1873)

Sunday, January 02, 2005

Happy(?) New Year

It was a somewhat somber New Year's, with the news from Asia about the rising death toll from the tsunami.

While Fox News concentrated on that U.N. guy who dissed the developed world as "stingy", and the subsequent one-upmanship of Western countries' pledges of aid, CNN did a much better job of telling the story of the human side of the catastrophe. The channel's "Survivor Stories" were heartbreaking, and told us more than Fox's incessant video of crashing waves and air drops of food.

On a couple of occasions, I have heard reporters comparing the damage and carnage to that caused by an atomic bomb. It is a good analogy.

A nuke propagates a shock wave that travels through the air over several miles, and whose force flattens almost anything in its path. It kills secondarily through fires and radiation.

A seabed earthquake, with a force many times greater than the largest nuke, also propagates a shock wave, although it travels through a very different medium--water. Therefore, the shock wave moves more slowly than a nukes', but it travels much farther; due to a tsunami's long wavelength, it does not lose much energy as it travels across the ocean. Because of ocean depths, the undersea earthquake's shock wave does no damage until it reaches landfall. Then, it expends its remaining energy, running over the land and causing nuke-like destruction. What it lacks in speed it makes up in mass; a large wave traveling 15 MPH can knock a house down as easily as a wind does blowing at 150 MPH. It kills through drowning and by blunt force. A tsunami may only reach a mile inland, however, because humanity clusters near the shore and in low-lying areas, and because the shock wave is dispersed over a wide geographic area, the potential for massive fatalities is great, as we have seen.

The New York Times ran a story about scientists who, after the earthquake, became aware of the scale of the tsunami and its potential for widespread destruction. They feverishly tried to warn the countries in danger, but they were stymied by this simple fact: they didn't have the phone numbers. There will undoubtedly be finger-pointing and hand-wringing about the failure of the "global community" to institute a simple call tree.

The unfortunate fact is that many people ignore warnings. Sirens sounded in Hilo, Hawaii before the 1960 Chilean tsunami, and many people stayed put, while others evacuated and returned too soon, after the first wave. The third was the largest. Sixty-one people died.