‘The day after’ for Asia’s environment

The December 26 earthquake in Indonesia was an extremely powerful phenomenon with apocalyptic consequences in the form of an inconceivable number of dead and a wide range of structural damage. Once more, wretched living conditions magnified the effects of the catastrophe. As well as its dramatic impact on millions of people, the tsunami unleashed by the earthquake damaged a large number of coastal ecosystems – coral reef, wetlands and mangrove forests. Events of such colossal magnitude have recurred in the distant past, but nature always recovers, helped by time, geological time, which is measured in thousands, millions and even billions of years, transcending any human sense of measurement. On a different scale, consider the comet that fell to earth at the end of the Cretaceous period, 65 million years ago, and the enormous number of species it destroyed. It took 3 million years for the planet to recover and enter the Cenozoic period. The evolutionary explosion that followed, over geological time, healed the injured tree of life. Despite its advanced age of 4.6 billion years, our planet is still doing well, changing continually, carrying continents on the backs of lithospheric plates, combining them into super-continents as if they were made of modeling clay, breaking them up again and giving rise to new oceans. This all takes place over geological time, by means of processes that although measured in centimeters per year, in fact produce not only slow but also very rapid changes. This is what has happened in Indonesia – the planet flexed its muscles and shifted the fault line about 15 meters under Sumatra. The mosaic of geological structures, rocks and fossils bear witness to the earth’s history in events such as that in Southeast Asia. We should not be unprepared. We do not have much experience in dealing with the environmental consequences of powerful phenomena such as these. Imagine if a tsunami struck one of our own coastlines, the river deltas such as the Axios or Evros, the Lagana coast where sea turtles nest, the islets off Crete with their botanical wealth, the small sea caves where the few remaining seals take refuge. It is clear how vulnerable these protected areas would be in the case of an «extreme event.» The parameter of geological time should be taken into consideration so that the inevitable changes can be absorbed as «painlessly» as possible. In the case of the Indian Ocean, once the human suffering has been assuaged, there will have to be a survey of the damage to the ecosystem and a consideration of how to restore it within modern pressures for development. It may sound harsh, but within two generations, events such as these will become almost mythical as the suffering of thousands of victims stays in the memory as legends. It takes much longer, however, for nature to remove the effects on the ecosystem. It is not morally acceptable to implement technology to protect only a few countries from natural disasters. At the same time, approaches to protecting natural heritage should be improved to provide margins for the recovery of rare but inevitable events where the throw of nature’s dice results in several steps backward. «The day after» the disaster should be a lesson in global consciousness for a safer planet. (1) Giorgos Moussouris is a civil engineer-geologist and Irini Theodosiou-Drandaki a