With the death toll now well over one hundred thousand and mounting constantly, this is one of the worst disasters in human history. Not only is it one of the strongest earthquake
s ever recorded, at 9.0 on the open-ended Richter Scale
(only four in the twentieth century were stronger), but the tsunami
that followed in the hours after has caused countless deaths, making it rank with the great disaster
s of the previous century such as the Tangshan earthquake of 1976
and the Bangladesh
monsoon floods of 1970.
(Update 1. Several weeks later the death toll seems to have stabilized around 150 000. Update 2. 19 January, Indonesia has revised its toll to about 170 000, recognizing that almost everyone still missing can be regarded as dead; making the total toll something like 220 000. Update 3. 25 January, Indonesia revises again: 220 000 there, making world total about 280 000.)
It is salutary to recognize that recent genocides -- those in Kampuchea, Rwanda, and East Timor -- still greatly outnumber anything the forces of nature on the surface of the earth can muster.
At 7.58 a.m. local time on 26 December 2004 the geography of the Earth changed. The tectonic plate underlying India jolted forward against the Burma (or Andaman) microplate, where they meet just off the north-west coast of Sumatra. The displacement of the seabed was reported* as many metres up for about 1200 km, with an initial rupture of at least 600 km into the Nicobar Islands spreading northward along the fault up into the Andaman Islands, causing aftershocks.
The huge earthquake under the ocean caused a tsunami, a massive accumulation of water thrown across the ocean. When this volume reaches shallow coastal waters its profile changes: the sea is shallow so the volume has to redistribute itself into gigantic waves breaking onto the shore.
Over several hours in the morning, countries all across the Indian Ocean were devastated. Indonesia, of course, as the closest got it the worst. As I write some eighty thousand to a hundred thousand are dead in Indonesia, mostly in the north of the island of Sumatra, and mostly in the northernmost province of Aceh. Until Boxing Day 2004 there was a vigorous armed rebel movement in Aceh seeking to achieve independence. Now the province is largely destroyed. Government is gone, roads are gone, villages are gone: Aceh has effectively ceased to exist.
The next worst hit was Sri Lanka. Waves came across the Bay of Bengal and hit beaches, villages, tourist destinations, everything. Sri Lanka is currently observing mourning for some twenty thousand or more people. A wave ripped up a train, and there seem to have been some eight hundred killed there, making it incidentally by far the worst railway disaster ever.
At the same time that Sri Lanka was hit so were all the southern states of India, with huge casualties. The waves spread out. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Indian territories in the Bay of Bengal north of Sumatra, have been devastated. The geography of the Nicobars has been permanently changed. There used to be a scientific establishment on Indira Point, southernmost point of India. Helicopter surveys suggest Indira Point no longer exists. No-one knows what has happened to the scientists. For a lot of these places a few helicopters are all that anyone can get out there: the roads are gone, and so are the jetties, and the railways, and the airstrips, and the villages themselves.
The tsunami kept going. The entire country of Maldives, a chain of atolls in the Indian Ocean, has a merely tenuous existence now because of global warming. The tsunami disaster rendered the country's existence even more perilous. The giant waves went as far as the African coast: deaths have been reported in Kenya, Tanzania, and above all on the Somali island of Hafun, off the coast of the Puntland region. The part of Thailand devastated includes the popular resort of Phuket, so there are very large numbers of deaths of Western tourists, especially Swedes; and for some European countries it is their worst peacetime disaster.
The whole world is staggered by the Indian Ocean tsunami diaster. For most of us this is the worst that has happened in living memory. Opportunities to donate to relief are everywhere. In the future, the World Health Organization is worried that deaths from untreated disease and unburied bodies will exceed even the unbelievable death toll directly from the tsunami waves. So many of the affected areas are so far away they cannot be reached, not with all the infrastructure destroyed. The Indonesian death toll could reach half a million.
Obviously this writeup cannot be final. It is changing all the time. It is beyond comprehension.
* See for example http://www.globalsecurity.org/eye/andaman.htm