Very few natural disasters have effected the entire globe quiet like the events of Boxing day 2004. For me, it was one of the first that captured my full attention and left me wanting to understand how in a matter of minutes thousands of people can just be wiped of the face of the Earth.
The Indian Ocean lays on the western side of the Pacific Ring of fire where the Indio-Austrailian plate is subducting beneath the Eurasian plate along the Sunda trench. Tectonic activity such as earthquakes and volcanic eruption are everyday occurrence in the area. As plates move in relation to each other they can become ‘locked’, unable to move past each other. Over time stress can build up within the locked plate untill the stress can no longer be contained and snaps like a rubber band causing a massive release of energy in the form of an earthquake. This is known as a stick slip fault and is usually the cause of the most powerful earthquakes.
On December 26th 2004 this occurred in spectacular fashion along the Sunda trench. A magnitude 9.2 earthquake rocked the Indian Ocean at 7.58 am. Over an astounding 1600 km stretch of the trench, uplift was recorded to be on average 6 meters. This massive displacement of such a long length of sea bed thrust the ocean waters upwards as well causing tsunami waves which would travel round the world. Such a powerful earthquake is termed a megathrust and released the energy of over 1.1×1017 joules, which is the equivalent of 26 megatonnes of TNT or 1500 Hiroshima atomic bombs.
Despite its violent geology the area is a travelers paradise with millions flocking to the islands year round. Its equatorial location means year round sun and therefore in especial popular as a Christmas destination. On Boxing day 2004 the beaches were filled you tourist from around the world blissfully unaware of the danger that loomed off the coast.
The first inclination that something was very wrong along the white sandy beaches was a process called draw back. As the earthquake thrusts water up directly above the epicenter water is pulled in from the local area to balance the displacement. From the local shorelines people could see the sea withdrawn quiet rapidly like low tide happening in very fast motion.
At the starting location the tsunami wave looks no more then a small bump on the surface of the ocean and travels at speeds of 500 – 1000 kilometers per hour. As is nears land and the sea floor rises up to the coastline as does the wave rearing up on its self; in this case in excess of 30 ft in places.
Over 275,000 people were killed in fourteen countries across two continents, with the last two direct fatalities being swept out to sea in South Africa, more than twelve hours after the earthquake. Scores more died in the coming weeks as decaying bodies and pollution made the spread of disease. Nearly 150,000 homes and buildings were destroyed by the waves.
Identifying bodies was near impossible new mortuaries had to be quickly constructed to handle the masses. In other cases some bodies took months to be washed up on shore and in others they were simply lost at sea.
Public response to the tragedy was unprecedented with over $14 billion US dollars raised by the public world wide, with about the same given by varying governments. It was by far not the worst or most fatal natural disaster in recent years but it touched the hearts of nations world wide at Christmas so every one flocked to help.
Different governments and agencies tended to stick to certain regions in the relief effort as seen above in a relief map produced by the Red Cross.
Road to recovery.
Now ten years on, the countries involved are well on the road to recovery but still scared by the events that Christmas. This years anniversary has seen coverage of the area rocket, with some stunning imagery showing how far certain areas have come since the devastation in 2004.
Will it happen again???
In short, yes. This was the not first major earthquake in this area now will it be the last. By January 1st 2005 there had already been 84 aftershocks ranging between magnitudes 5 to 7. On March 28th 2005 the biggest aftershock occurred just a few hundred kilometers from the original epicenter. Another tsunami was trigger but luckily waves of barely 10 ft were recorded in the local area, still 1346 people lost their lives.
With the tectonic location of the Indian Ocean and its islands, it is never a matter of ‘if’ but a matter of when such events will occur. What hinder this further is it is one of the most densely populated areas of the world but its equatorial weather and fertile volcanic grounds make it prime location for people to live regardless of risk.