Vol 9 N° 2 [April–June 2011]
2 The benefits of biotech for South Asia
9 Chemistry year off to flying start
9 Launch of African Journal of Chemical Education
10 Call for working group on mining in biosphere reserves
11 Six South American cities get wise to tsunamis
12 Prize shows once more that science needs women
13 Romain Murenzi to head TWAS
13 UNESCO helping Iraq to draw up science policy
14 A science film festival for Cambodia's youth
14 ICTs for West African universities
15 Moneef Zou’bi on why the Arab world was ‘set for some dramatic events’
17 Coping with extremes in Pakistan
21 Rising to the challenge of rising waters
24 New Releases
A triple catastrophe
"My heart goes out to the people of Japan," said UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova hours after the country was struck by an earthquake and tsunami on 11 March. Estimated of magnitude 9.0 by the Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA), the earthquake was fairly shallow, just 24 km beneath the ocean floor, with an epicenter situated 130 km off the northeast coast of Japan. Thanks to the observance of strict building codes, not a single edifice collapsed in Tokyo, a conglomeration of 35 million people.
Within three minutes of the earthquake, JMA had sent out a warning. Unfortunately, the first wave arrived within 25 minutes, leaving very little time to alert people. The underwater earthquake generated a series of tsunami over 10 m high which flattened coastal villages and towns. Two weeks after the catastrophe, the provisional death toll has topped 10 000 with a further 16 000 reported missing.
The tsunami’s progress across the Pacific was closely monitored by the Pacific Tsunami Warning System. This system was created by UNESCO's Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) in conjunction with Pacific Rim countries almost 50 years ago. The system counts 40 or so Deep-ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunami (DART) buoys dotted mainly around the Pacific Rim. Those close to Japan recorded a wave 1.08 m high on 11 March, confirming that a large tsunami was rapidly moving eastward.
Technical readiness for a tsunami is essential. Countries stretching from Venezuela to Canada and across the Caribbean islands have just participated in the first full-scale simulated tsunami alert exercise for the Caribbean and adjacent regions, on 23 March. The warning system was established in 2005 by the UNESCO–IOC in collaboration with the countries of the region.
It is also crucial to prepare coastal communities for the eventuality of a tsunami via education and contingency planning. UNESCO has just wound up a 15-month project which did just that in Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. You will find the details in this issue.
Of course, Japan suffered a third catastrophe this month. After the Fukushima nuclear power plant was swamped by the tsunami, it was left without power to drive the cooling system. This caused fuel rods in several reactors to overheat, setting off explosions on successive days that released radioactive particles into the air. More than 200 000 inhabitants living within a 30-km radius of the plant were evacuated. In mid-March, the situation was evaluated at level 6, just one level below the nuclear catastrophe of Chernobyl in Ukraine in 1986. As this issue goes to press, the situation at the plant remains highly volatile. This earthquake was the biggest ever registered in Japan and the world’s fourth-biggest on record.
The second-biggest in the same area (8.3) dates back to 869 AD. More than ever, research is needed to ascertain where these large earthquakes and derived tsunamis are likely to occur. Palaeotsunami and geophysical research will improve our knowledge of these aspects and thus our preparedness for the next time disaster strikes.
Assistant Director-General and
IOC Executive Secretary
for Natural Sciences