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Answers: Geology, Oceanography, and Sociology

Observations from the Edge
Robert T. Nanninga
Coast News
January 12, 2005


"Nature, in her most dazzling aspects or stupendous parts, is but the background and theatre of the tragedy of man." — John Morley

awoke early on the morning of December 26th to images of a tidal surge approaching people on a tropical beach. As I watched the video footage of coastal communities being washed away by tsunamis I couldn't help think of my own. Over and over I worked the equation, could this happen here? Telling myself a tsunami was unlikely to level Leucadia in the foreseeable future, I processed the enormity of the event with a sense of pragmatic detachment.

I watched the news footage, all day to be exact, mesmerized by the epic destruction playing out on a 24 hours news cycle. Images of dead children and grieving parents, piles of bodies, and mounds of debris edited into a macabre quilt of human misery, hinting only at the chaos experienced by the survivors. Safe on the sofa, I had the luxury of pondering the social, political, economic, and ecological impacts of the unfolding human drama.

For weeks, tales of death and destruction from Thailand, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka replaced tales of Iraqi death and destruction. The coverage became so gratuitous, so inane, Diane Sawyer bringing Good Morning America to the disaster region hardly registered on the media vulture scale. Instead of in-depth coverage of the science of global tectonics, viewers were offered a conversation regarding a swimsuit model's determination to survive. Instead of discussions regarding coastal development policy and the ecological toll of the tsunami impact, Paula Zahn asked survivors how the felt.

Yet still I watched, mesmerized by the carnage.

Like any other disaster movie, the unfolding drama played out as if scripted. Rich tourists survive with the help of friendly locals, families get separated, a few joyful reunions, fewer survivors, a few heroes, a few villains, and special effects worthy of Hollywood. All that was missing was the story of a fat lady sacrificing herself for others. Like disaster movies, also missing was context to bigger issues, which were briskly brushed aside for anthropocentric sensationalism.

Perhaps it is the lack of reason within the very reasonable sciences of geology, oceanography, and ecology that has every one rushing to fix the situation and move on with business as usual. Unfortunately, business as usual is part of the problem. Sleeping on the beach in luxury cabanas has a price dead tourists don't begin to pay. Developing exotic vacation destinations result in unending environmental degradation that dwarfs the harshest earthquake.

The true scope of the Indonesian tsunami will never be known. For many, closure will come only through acceptance. On December 26, 2004 The Indian Ocean claimed thousands never be recovered. Lives extinguished unceremoniously, washed away with the receding water. Nature happens, has always happened, and will always happen. Ever since primates walked upright, our kind has been regularly swept out to sea. The only thing that has changed is the addition of a 24-hour news machine hungry for images of death and destruction.

Watching the continuous news coverage I considered the inevitable. How prepared are the people of Carlsbad, Encinitas and Solana Beach in case of catastrophic disturbance? With no few fresh water resources, little remaining farmland, and millions of people to feed, we thrive despite our precarious relationship to the natural environment. How prepared is San Diego for an unexpected hurricane, or the perfect El Nino storm? What about an earthquake and fires during Santa Ana conditions?

Southern California is poised for our own brand of hurt. Although not prone to tsunamis, drought is equally lethal, as are earthquakes, wildfires, and nuclear reactors. Built on bluffs crowded against the Pacific Ocean, it is only a matter of time before the land of sprawl and crawl lives its own nightmare. We know it's coming, fail to plan for it, and compound the inevitable consequences by developing way beyond our precarious means.

On New Years day I made a point of experiencing the first sunset of 2005. I needed personal time with the Pacific. A marker if you will. Thoughts of tsunamis, and the fragility of land-based mammals, danced through my head. Countless dead, billions lost, whole communities wiped off the face of the earth, yet, who can blame the ocean? Nature has no wrath, no fury. No deity waved the hand of fate, and tectonics are oblivious to karma. Geology happens.

There's a lesson to be learned in the rubble of Banda Aceh.

Will we learn it?

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