SEJ tsunami Q&A

Thanks to Denny Wilkins for passing on this little tipsheet from the Society of Environmental Journalists.

TipSheet provides biweekly news tips for journalists on potential environmental stories and sources. TipSheet is produced jointly by the Society of Environmental Journalists and the Radio and Television News Directors Foundation. TipSheet is posted to searchable archives on SEJ’s Web site.


While the immediate news from the Indian Ocean Tsunami of Dec. 26, 2004, will focus on the devastation, the human cost, and relief efforts, the disaster reveals a number of key environmental stories. We can only sketch a few of them here.

1. The most basic question: Could it happen here? Yes indeed, as many major media have already reported. While almost any coastal area, especially low-lying and densely inhabited ones, are somewhat vulnerable, Hawaii, Alaska, and the Pacific Northwest coast are especially so because they are near active faults and volcanoes. See “Could It Happen Here? You Bet,” Time, Jan. 2, 2005, by J. Madeleine Nash.

2. Would we have any warning? Maybe, but maybe not enough. While the US (thanks to NOAA and USGS) has one of the best Tsunami warning systems in the world (focusing on AK and the Pacific), it could always be better and it faces numerous practical problems (e.g. dangers of “overwarning”). One key is a global network, and improvement efforts are underway: “Tsunami Group Will Expand Its Network,” New York Times, Jan. 2, 2005, by Andrew C. Revkin.

3. Would any warning make a difference? Not if there was nobody to receive it, no way to broadcast it, and no practical plan for evacuation. Good warning systems and evacuation plans can help communities survive a wide range of disasters not just tsunamis. Yet whatever the hazard — terrorists, tornados, hurricanes, or tsunamis — many communities are woefully underprepared. Are local and FEMA preparedness efforts effective where you are? Starting point. See “Tsunami Warning System Could Be Created,” AP (Philadelphia Inquirer), Jan. 4, 2005, by Michael Casey.

4. Does the way we handle coastal development make a difference? Nearly half the US population lives along the coasts (not all in tsunami-vulnerable areas), and coastal populations tend to be the most densely concentrated. Should the feds stop subsidizing and limit rebuilding aid to folks who insist on building in areas prone to coastal flooding? Hurricanes, flooding, erosion, subsidence, energy development, and wetlands preservation are all linked to tsunami-proofing. Starting point: (follow links to your state program).

5. There are numerous other environmental angles. Some of the island nations hardest hit experienced essentially a preview of hazards they face as global warming brings sea level rise. One SEJ member reports that losses of life and property were highest in places where mangrove swamp had been logged and replaced by shrimp farms. Many are asking why animals seem to sense coming seismic disasters and flee — and whether this could offer humans a useful warning. Better understanding of tsunamis and protection from them depends on many kinds of basic oceanographic research, including mapping of sea-floor topology. While not as compelling as the human tragedy, the impacts of the tsunami on coral reefs and atolls, barrier islands, coastal wetlands, and ecosystems will also be a major story.

“The Asian Tsunami: Think Globally, Locally, Journalistically,” first in a series from the Poynter Institute, asks questions and offers resources to consider when covering this type of catastrophe. Includes a link to an excellent USGS web page, Tsunamis and Earthquakes, which provides information on how local tsunamis are generated by earthquakes as well as animations, virtual reality models of tsunamis, and summaries of past research studies. Other handy web links include the South Asian Journalists Association’s Tsunami Roundup, Tips & Sources, and many more in SEJ’s own Useful Links database (search on ‘tsunami’).


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