Malcolm Bowman, a professor of physical oceanography at the Stony Brook School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences and president of the Stony Brook Environmental Conservancy, gave a presentation on Wednesday in the second installment of a Provost’s Lecture Series about the recent crisis in Japan.
The lecture, titled “Tsunami! One of Nature’s Most Destructive and Fearsome Events: Could it happen to us?” illustrated the core reasons why the tsunami occurred in Japan and explored the likeliness of a similar event occurring in New York.
“We’re getting nothing but bad news lately: We have a civil war breaking out in Libya, we have two wars continuing in Iraq and Afghanistan, we have huge unrest in the Middle East, we have revolutions within these territories, and then we have been experiencing a great number of natural disasters as well,” Bowman explained. “We know we cannot do anything about it, we do our best to be prepared for them but we just have to be in awe and sometimes in frightened shock of these events.”
According to Bowman, the tsunami in Japan was a result of the fourth largest earthquake on record in the world, which occurred on March 11. The tsunami hit Japan 15 minutes later.
“Forty percent of Japan’s coastline had seawalls built around to try and protect communities around from natural disasters” Bowman said.
However the ten meter high wave was too powerful and simply swept most of it away, resulting in 10,000 dead, 17,000 missing, 2,000 roads destroyed, 56 bridges, 36 railways structures as of last week.
He continued to explain that the collision of plates, which caused the earthquake, also pushed the water underneath towards the surface, creating a “releases and shoots” effect, which sets off a tsunami. What Bowman described as a “solitary wave” continues to move “until they hit something.”
Bowman also used a series of animations to demonstrate to the audience the depths and rise of the ocean floor which affects the tsunami and “tends to bend the wave.” He also compared the disaster to the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia, which caused 23,000 casualties, but was of a lesser magnitude.
When asked if this could possibly happen in New York, Bowman addressed the extreme flooding caused by winter storms, such as those in November of 1950. What he described as “storm surge” illustrates that New York is vulnerable to flooding, a fear which is further increased by climate change and rising sea levels. He also used flooding in the Netherlands to emphasize the need for construction that can deal with this flooding, as he stressed, “we cannot have these systems fail.” He expressed a particular concern for the underground subway system and the probability for this to be permanently disabled and have many injured if it was flooded.
“All it would take is for one of those stations to fill up with seawater and once again all of the power would go off,” Bowman said.
Even when theorizing about part of the Canary Islands separating from the mainland and falling into the sea, triggering a large tsunami to ripple towards the east coast of America, Bowman insisted that this is highly unlikely and a one in a 100,000 year occurrence. Although unlikely, Bowman insisted that precautions should be taken with building infrastructures to avoid devastation from tsunami and flooding that has already affected Japan.