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Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Giant waves wreak havoc across Asian region

The giant killer waves that swept the coasts of South and South East Asia have added a new word to the global lexicon of disaster: tsunami. Not one but two undersea earthquakes occurring within hours of each other caused huge volumes of displaced water to hurl themselves at shores as far as 2,000 km away. The toll of the disaster — which is still to be tallied fully — is stupefying: over 70,000 dead in South Asia, including 10,000 in India. The economic losses might take years to compute. The truly fearsome aspect of the disaster is that it was totally unpredictable. So little is known about catastrophic phenomena like tsunamis that it is virtually impossible for governments or populations to take precautionary action. It is as though our planet, which we so take for granted in our exploitation of it, suddenly shows us that it has an unimaginably immense will of its own, which reduces all our scientific knowledge to a cypher.
We know very little of what makes our planet tick. Though earthquakes are commonplace — every day a couple take place somewhere in the world — we don't know what causes them, particularly if they are underwater quakes. As Richard Feynman says: "We understand... the interior of the sun far better than we understand the interior of the earth". It was not till 1936 that we learnt that our planet has two cores, an inner and an outer. How the two react against each other, and with what repercussions, we have no idea. Volcanoes are common, but even experts are caught unawares by them.Forget nations, our entire species might not survive such a cataclasmic giga-event — which for our planet is but a twitch of its skin. Such stupendous forces beyond conception can inspire only awe. And ultimate humility in the face of a mysterious creation which, to make itself complete, must inevitably contain the seeds of its own eventual dissolution.

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