Scientist who predicted Boxing Day tsunami claims it will happen again

CAFOD – Boxing Day tsunami – 10 years on

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On this day 18 years ago — December 26, 2004 — one of the largest and deadliest earthquakes ever recorded caused utter devastation, affecting 14 countries bordering the Indian Ocean. At around 8am that fateful morning, two tectonic plates collided, casuing the floor of the Indian Ocean to lurch forward approximately 15 metres toward Indonesia. According to the Royal Geographical Society, the earthquake released energy equivalent to 23,000 Hiroshima bombs. One scientist, Dr Kerry Sieh, had predicted the earthquake, and has since warned that another in the same region could happen again “soon” — in our lifetime. 

Dr Sieh, a geologist and seismologist, has been described by the Seismological Society of America as at the “forefront of understanding the recurrence of earthquakes and fault behaviour”. 

Well-versed in Indonesia’s earthquake zone after spending a decade on the island of Sumatra and nearby islands, the now 72-year-old found that the fault ruptured in four different sections every 200 years. 

He established that there had been a pair of earthquakes in 1350 and 1380, another in the 1600s, and a third pair in 1797 and 1833. 

Although it is impossible to know for sure, he predicted that there would be an earthquake in 2004 and sought to warn the government and locals by handing out brochures.

Speaking to 60 Minutes Australia in 2005, Dr Sieh said he could predict how big the next earthquake would be, and explained: “I will bet the next significant earthquake here will be at least an 8.2 and possibly an 8.7 or a little larger.”

The earthquake of 2004 measured 9.1 on the Richter scale, causing a tsunami 17.4 metres tall in the Indian Ocean which lasted for some seven hours. 

People, cars, trees, houses, and debris were all swept through the streets with the Aceh province on the Indonesian island of Sumatra most badly hit. Approximately five percent of the local population there was killed. 

Hospitals and morgues struggled to cope with 570,000 people displaced and 179,000 buildings and homes destroyed in Indonesia alone.

Two years after the disaster, he visited the tragic scene of destruction and warned: “It’s traumatic to see but its what we’re going to see more of in the 21st century.”

More than 80 percent of larger earthquakes take place around the edges of the Pacific Ocean, according to the British Geological Survey, with the area being known as the “Ring of Fire”.

Dr Sieh warned that another earthquake of a similar magnitude will happen again “soon”, explaining that the children running around in the street in 2006 would see it happen in their lifetime. He added: “Whether its a few decades or a few months I don’t know.”

The 2004 earthquake led to a worldwide aid response with $6.25billion — the equivalent to approximately £13billion today —  donated to a UN relief fund which helped the 14 countries affected, of which Indonesia received the most. 

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The Study of the Tsunami Aftermath and Recovery report, which was launched in 2005, found that the disaster took an “enormous” toll on the Indonesian province of Aceh. 

But within five years of the catastrophe, many individuals were back in homes they owned, and a decade on, communities had both new and old residents. 

Dr Sieh said preparing for an earthquake and preventing hundreds of thousands of deaths is difficult, particularly in poor countries like Indonesia. 

Speaking to National Geographic in 2018, he was unsure whether the progress made in prevention would solve even a tenth of the problems that might occur in a future event. He said: “Is good work being done? Yes. There are people trying to educate; there are people trying to build vertical evacuation structures. But will it solve even 10 percent of the problem? I have my doubts.”

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