A Weblog monitoring coverage of environmental issues and science in the UK media. By Professor Emeritus Philip Stott. The aim is to assess whether a subject is being fairly covered by press, radio, and television. Above all, the Weblog will focus on science, but not just on poor science. It will also bring to public notice good science that is being ignored because it may be politically inconvenient.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Brief notes on the causes of tragedies.....

The earthquake which has devastated Pakistan, Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, and Indian-controlled Kashmir, bringing such tragedy and human misery to this remote hill region, has, sadly, been expected by geologists for some time. The Indo-Australian Earth Plate has been moving north into the great Eurasian Plate at a speed of around 4-5 cm per year, but there has not been enough earth activity, to date, to release the resultant pressure. A major earthquake, or a series of significant earthquakes, was thus inevitable at some point in the wider region of the southern Himalayas, although the area struck was not necessarily the most likely to be hit. Moreover, though terrible, at 7.6 on the Richter Scale, the present earthquake is weaker than predicted by some, and this is deeply concerning because it is unlikely to have released sufficient pressure throughout the tectonic belt. Further powerful earthquakes are therefore likely along this most complex and active fault line, although nobody knows exactly where and on what precise timescale. There have already been a number of aftershocks, some over 5 or 6 on the Richter Scale, thus representing major earthquakes in their own right.

This natural tragedy is compounded by the difficult mountain terrain and the fact that this is a politically-disputed region and the home of many poor people. Neither the rugged landscape nor the buildings are readily earthquake-proofed, and mud slides are an additional hazard. With numerous small bridges crossing dramatic ravines, the transport infrastructure within the region is especially vulnerable.

By contrast, the loss of the European Space Agency's Cryosat spacecraft is a set back, but not a tragedy, and it is likely to have resulted from human error. The craft fell into the Arctic Ocean, north of Greenland, minutes after lift-off from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in northern Russia. Russian officials state that a problem caused the rocket's second stage to run out of fuel, so that it could not eject the probe. The craft cost £90m. Space travel remains, of course, a fundamentally risky business, and we can only be glad that no human life has been lost in this particular operation. However, in science, good data collection can only be welcomed, and it is a pity that an opportunity has been lost to measure changes in ice area and ice thickness. Debates will now have to take place about the feasibility of a second Cryosat mission, but in the light of many competing alternative missions.

For the people of Pakistan and India, however, true tragedy continues to loom, and there is the most urgent need to plan for the aftershocks and for the future earthquakes that are worryingly still expected along the southern flanks of the Himalayas. In this awesome task, both countries deserve the help and support of the whole world.

This BBC page lists all the major donor agencies, including Muslim Aid and the Kashmir International Relief Fund, and indicates how you may help (scroll down to 'How To Donate').


[New counter, June 19, 2006, with loss of some data]

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