Ira Flatow on Science: Lessons from the Tsunami

Alex Chadwick talks with Ira Flatow, host of NPR's Talk of the Nation Science Friday, about what scientists have learned from last December's tsunami that devastated shores all across the Indian Ocean.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

How big was it? New research published in the journal Science shows that last December's Southeast Asia earthquake and the resulting tsunami were surprisingly complex events, and, as bad as they were, they could have been worse. Ira Flatow, host of "Science Friday," is here to talk with us. He's a regular Thursday contributor to DAY TO DAY.

Ira, what are these recent findings?

IRA FLATOW reporting:

Well, you know, as you say, they show just how enormous and powerful the tsunami and the earthquake were. Scientists say that the scope of these events have left seismologists literally searching for words and tools to describe the enormity of the geological processes involved. But they have put some numbers to it and these numbers are amazing. They say it was the second largest earthquake on record and the third most fatal. It released the energy equivalent of 100-gigaton bomb, and that's about as much energy that is used in the US in six months.

CHADWICK: Boy.

FLATOW: Yeah, it's amazing. And the shifts in the sea floor displaced so much seawater that the tsunami traveled as far as Antarctica in the south, the East and West coasts of the Americas, and as far north as the Arctic Ocean. And sea levels were raised around the globe, if just by a tiny amount, so that, really, Alex, no point on Earth remained undisturbed.

CHADWICK: Well, as you say, this is the tsunami, but it's the earthquake itself where all this started. What do we know more about that?

FLATOW: And there are some surprising results about that, too. Yes, the geologists report that it got off to what they call `a flying start,' and then a slow slip. And that means that during the first minute that the earthquake broke a 60-mile patch of tectonic plate boundary, it began moving slowly northward and, had it stopped, it would have been nothing more than a typical 7 on a Richter scale. But, instead of slowing, as they normally do, this one really accelerated, and scientists who were listening with their instruments, so to speak, to the shock waves--they describe it propagating like a noisy fire engine traveling northwest. It would make a higher pitch moving northward toward Russia, a lower pitch to those listening in Australia...

CHADWICK: Ah.

FLATOW: ...so it was sort of like the Doppler effect you hear; as a car passes, it goes higher, then lower. Ya-room.

CHADWICK: Right. Yeah.

FLATOW: Like that.

CHADWICK: OK. Well, what is the headline here? What is the biggest single surprise that scientists have coming out of this?

FLATOW: Well, the most remarkable feature was not this 5,000-mile-per-hour, 10-minute initial unzipping of the plate boundary; it was that subsequent slowing down very quickly that surprised them. And this slow slip left some really interesting real estate behind. For example, you may have seen pictures of the shorelines that were raised more than four meters in some places while the shorelines in other places just were dipping below the ocean. And despite the terrific loss of life and property, it was this slowing down that may have actually saved more lives because if the northern slip had not been slowed, geologist Roger Bilham writes in Science, `It might have generated a tsunami along the entire 1,300 kilometer rupture zone,' and this would have caused much more widespread and severe damage on the coastlines of India, Myanmar and Thailand.

CHADWICK: Ira Flatow, host of NPR's "Science Friday" and regular Thursday contributor to DAY TO DAY, summing up here information that's in the new issue of the journal Science about the effects of the tsunami at the end of last year.

Ira, thank you, again.

FLATOW: You're welcome, Alex.

CHADWICK: Stay with us on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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