Caribbean faces tsunami threat

Published: Monday | January 26, 2009

Matthew Chapman,

Catastrophic earthquakes could hit the Caribbean causing tsunamis. - Contributed

The Caribbean has a reputation for being ravaged by hurricanes. However, what many do not realise is that a natural-disaster time bomb is slowly ticking in the region.

This month marks the 102nd anniversary of an earthquake that measured a relatively mild 6.5 on the Richter scale, but killed over 800 people in Kingston, Jamaica.

The 1907 earthquake that devastated Jamaica occurred on January 14 at 3:32 p.m. on a hot, cloudless Monday.

Devastation exacerbated

The earthquake was preceded by the sound of a mighty wind and followed by the sound of a train roaring in a tunnel.

The ground shook so violently that people and buildings were tossed about like puppets. In less than a minute, Kingston was flattened, with hundreds lying dead or dying buried beneath piles of rubble.

Twenty minutes later, the devastation was exacerbated as fire engulfed the streets of Kingston and raged continuously for four days.

However, it is water, not fire, that is the principal danger where earthquakes are concerned.

In the first documented major earthquake in the Caribbean, Jamaica's Port Royal was devastated on June 7, 1692.

The city was turned upside down by massive tsunami waves that dumped the harbour's ships on to the once bustling streets and sucked the dead bodies and bones from uprooted graves out into the harbour.

In total, it is estimated that between 1,500 and 2,000 people died.

Experts from the University of North Carolina and University of Texas in the United States (US) believe they have evidence of at least 10 significant tsunamis in the northern Caribbean since 1492.

All 10 have been triggered by earthquakes caused by friction along the boundary of the North American and Caribbean tectonic plates.

This boundary, which lies along the north coast of Hispaniola, extends for 3,200 kilometres from Central America to the Lesser Antilles.

Warning system

All earthquakes of 7.0 magnitude or greater on the Richter scale have the capability of creating a tsunami, and within the last 500 years, there have been at least 12 global earthquakes of such magnitude.

The last major Caribbean tsunami took place in 1946 and killed about 100 people at Matanzas, near Nagua in the Dominican Republic.

Since then, things have been ominously quiet and due to the clockwork-like nature of the region, scientists are wondering when, not if, another tsunami will strike.

Despite proposals to build an early-warning system in the Caribbean following the deaths of over 225,000 people in the 2004 Asian tsunami, there is no such system yet in place.

A tsunami early-warning system for the Caribbean region may come into place by 2011.

Data-sharing system

It took a major step closer to realisation on March 12 last year, when a United Nations-backed coordination group decided to give the go-ahead for a regional data-sharing system.

However, this means that the 40 million inhabitants of the Caribbean will have no forewarning in the meantime and no contingency plans should a tsunami take place.

Geologist Uri ten Brink of the US Geological Survey, who has been studying the seismology of the Caribbean, believes the area is at major risk from natural disasters.

"The threat of major earthquakes in the Caribbean, and the possibility of a resulting tsunami are real," he said.

"Local earthquakes, such as from the fault line of Hispaniola, or effects from distant earth-quakes, can be severe.

According to ten Brink, landslides and volcanic eruptions can also cause major earthquakes and potential tsunamis in this region.

"It has happened before, and it will happen again."

As ten Brink warns, the Caribbean is under extreme threat from potential tsunamis brought about by landslides and volcanic eruptions.

The biggest danger comes from all the way across the Atlantic. British scientists have identified a geological time bomb that will create the extraordinary pheno-menon known as a mega tsunami. This 'time bomb' is located on one of the Canary Islands, just off the coast of North Africa.

Dr Simon Day, who works at the Benfield Greig Hazard Research Centre, at the University College of London, warns that one flank of the Cumbre Vieja volcano on the island of La Palma could be plunged into the ocean by the next volcanic eruption.

"If the volcano collapsed in one block of rock, weighing 500 billion tonnes, it would create an undersea wave 2,000 feet tall," said Dr Day.

"Within five minutes of the landslide, a dome of water about a mile high would form and then collapse, before the mega tsunami fanned out in every direction, travelling at speeds of up to 500 miles per hour."

Bill McGuire, director of the Benfield Grieg Hazard Research Centre reports that mega tsunami waves last much longer than a regular tsunami.

"When one of these comes in, it keeps on coming for 10 to 15 minutes," Professor McGuire said.

Between nine and 12 hours after the collapse of the island, waves between 20 and 50 metres high will crash into the Caribbean islands and eastern seaboard of North America, having crossed 4,000 miles.

"The US government must beware of the La Palma threat. They should certainly be worried, and so should the island states in the Caribbean that will really bear the brunt of a collapse," said Professor McGuire.

Catastrophic disasters rare

Catastrophic natural disasters are rare, according to the experts, and occur on average every 10,000 years.

However, some, including Professor McGuire, fear La Palma could collapse at any time.

"The thing about La Palma is we know it's on the move now," said Professor McGuire. Scientists believe the chunk of land is slipping slowly into the water and think it is highly likely that another eruption will make the entire western flank collapse.

The potential of a massive human disaster is not only limited to the Caribbean and North America. Britain will also face the fury of some of the tsunami. Britain's southern seaside resorts and ports will be hit by waves of around 10 metres, causing huge damage.

Even with an early-warning system in place, experts are worried that a huge tsunami would offer no safe place for Caribbean residents to escape to in time.

While day-to-day life carries on in these islands, the ticking geographical time bomb could go off at any time, turning paradise into a living hell.