Vassar Today

Vassar Professor Surveys Tsunami Damage

Brian McAdoo, assistant professor of geology on the Mary Clark Rockefeller Chair, is a member of the International Tsunami Survey Team—the first scientific team to reach Indonesia’s Sumatra Island, where the damage and human death toll from the December 26 disaster were worst. McAdoo (pictured, far right), who is on leave this year, was in Switzerland researching earthquakes and tsunamis when the tsunami hit. His team made its way along the coast of Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and Sumatra’s Aceh province. The scientists collected data on wave heights and the distance the wave traveled inland, in order to update computer prediction models and to understand better the mechanism of the earthquake. McAdoo emailed the college with his story.

“This earthquake is the second largest in the last 100 years and probably will go down as the worst natural disaster in history—combining a really big event with very high population density and poverty rates in the affected areas. This integration of geology and geography is what we do at Vassar.

“The geologists in our department try to understand how the earth works, from earthquakes to climate change to agricultural systems to sediment delivery. The geographers in our department seek to understand how living things interact with the surface of the earth. How are economies and cultures affected by national and physical boundaries? In this one event, we see how the surface of the earth interacted with a variety of cultures, religions, economies, environments—the whole lot.

“For example, the town of Kalkudah in Sri Lanka was hit particularly hard. Within a 300-meter stretch of coastline, over 500 people were killed (and buried together on the spot). A mosque, Hindu temple, and Christian church were all damaged. The mosque, closest to the beach, suffered far less damage than the temple and church because the local Muslim legislator had provided a seawall in front of the mosque. A quick glance at the damage suggests that this seawall increased the destruction on either side. This does not help the religious tensions that sometimes arise in such a religiously diverse area. What did help ease the tensions was the outpouring of aid from a vast array of Muslim organizations, providing for those in need regardless of religious creed.

“One big take-home message that I came away with from the affected regions: protect the parts of the natural environment whose job it is to diffuse wave energy—beaches, dunes, coral reefs, and vegetation, including mangroves. Coral reefs are being threatened by fisheries and climate change, and coastal vegetation and dunes are often removed to provide access to the beach for both fishermen and tourists.

“The Maldives were largely overwashed by the wave, but the velocity was much diminished by the offshore encircling reefs. On one place in Aceh, the wave came on shore at 2.5 meters above sea level and wiped out a community. Just 100 meters away, behind a mangrove swamp, there was hardly evidence of the wave at all!”