Tsunami lesson for Med states

ATHENS – Greece’s popular tourist island of Rhodes could one day succumb to a similar fate as the Thai resort of Phuket, Greek seismologists warn, noting that the Mediterranean has been hit by tidal waves in the past. Greece is particularly vulnerable with 50 percent of Europe’s seismic activity concentrated in the country, and experts underscore the lack of a Mediterranean early warning system. Southern Italy and Sicily, as well as the Algerian and Tunisian coastlines, are also high on the risk list, Gerassimos Papadopoulos, of the Geodynamics Institute of the Athens Observatory, told AFP. «There have been and there will be tsunamis in the Mediterranean, even if here this phenomenon is rarer and less violent than in the oceans in view of the more reduced magnitude of earthquakes which do not surpass 8-8.2 on the Richter scale,» he told AFP. The last big tidal wave recorded in Greece dates back to July 9, 1956, when an earthquake measuring 7.7 threw up a wall of water 25 meters (75 feet) high on to the Cycladic island of Amorgos, even affecting Egypt, local seismologist Vassilis Papazahos said. In 1908, a tidal wave in the Strait of Messina set off by an earthquake, as happened Sunday in the Indian Ocean, left more than 1,000 people dead in Sicily and Calabria, he added. «In 1956 there were just four deaths, but today with the touristic development of the coasts the toll would be heavier, and Rhodes, for example, could become a Greek Phuket,» Papadopoulos said, referring to the popular Thai destination devastated by the tsunami that hit 10 countries mostly in Asia leaving more than 80,000 people dead. He led a two-year research effort which has just completed a study on the risks facing Rhodes. «An alert system must be set up in the area» along the lines of that in place since 1948 in the Pacific and that in the Indian Ocean, which was so cruelly lacking at the weekend, the seismologist said. Costas Synolakis, an expert from California, ruled out Greece being affected on the same scale as was seen in Asia and warned against alarmism. However, he called for more measures in an interview with the Apoyevmatini daily newspaper. «All those living near the sea must know that after an earthquake you have to immediately get far away from the seafront,» he said. Two European studies on the impact of tsunamis in the Mediterranean have been conducted since 1992 and Greek seismologists have been cooperating for 10 years with Japanese experts on mapping the Aegean. In 2000 years, nearly 20 tsunamis have been recorded in the Mediterranean, some of which were deadly such as in 551 along the Lebanese-Syrian coast, in Egypt in the fourth and 14th centuries or at Messina in Italy in 1908, according to Paul Tapponnier, a geologist at the Institut Physique du Globe de Paris (IPG). Experts say 80 percent of tsunamis are in the Pacific, 10 percent in the Indian Ocean and between 5 and 10 percent in the Mediterranean where the intensity is generally weaker, Philippe Lognonne, director of the IPG’s department of spatial and planetary geophysics, said. But, in theory, a tsunami hitting the southern French coast at Camargue, «a scenario not to be excluded, could go up to the town of Arles,» 25 kilometers (15 miles) from the coast, according to Michel Villeneuve, a geologist at the University of Provence. The last small tsunami provoked by an earth tremor at Boumerdes in Algeria in May 2003 touched the Balearic Islands and the French coast without claiming any lives. While the Pacific is equipped with an early warning system in which 26 countries participate, neither the Mediterranean nor the Indian Ocean have such a system. «What has just happened in Asia is perhaps going to make us reflect, even if it isn’t a priority for countries and one can only regret it,» Tapponnier said. Patrick Simon, head of the office of natural risks at the French Environment Ministry, said France had begun an assessment on the frequency risk of tsunamis occurring. «What would complicate the alert is that the Mediterranean being only 1,000 kilometers wide, a tsunami crosses it in a little more than an hour,» he commented.