Earthquakes don’t really scare me that much. Don’t get me wrong, earthquakes are nothing to sneeze at, and can be quite hazardous to life and limb, but I do not live in fear of them. Growing up off the coast of Northern California can do that to a person.
The tiny Juan de Fuca tectonic plate sits a few miles offshore, snuggled in-between the massive North American and Pacific tectonic plates, and slowly, but surely, subducting under the North American plate at the Cascadia subduction zone. Due to this phenomenon, Northern Californians do all that they can to prepare for what we call “The Big One”; no building taller than 3 stories, everything built with earthquake “stability” in mind, etc. The Japanese, who live in a similar situation, have done the same thing and after last week’s 8.9 earthquake, most things remained shaken, but relatively intact. Even the nuclear power plants, which had only been built to withstand an 8.2 earthquake, withstood 7x the force and remained in good condition. So where did things go wrong? One word…tsunami.
Tsunamis scare me. I won’t go into a lesson on what a tsunami is, or how they’re formed, I’m sure recent reports from the media outlets have bombarded you with enough such details. However, I will point out that there is no way to really “prepare” for the impact of a tsunami. The best you can do is to have an early warning system in place to detect the impending arrival of one, hopefully with enough time to head for the hills. What barrier can be built to withstand a 30 foot wave crashing down on the shoreline at 45 mph? Interestingly enough, there are barriers out there that can help lessen a tsunami’s impact, all you have to do is look a little offshore. Hopefully what you’ll see is an intact coastal forest system, and a little beyond that, a healthy reef system; two wonderful and natural disaster prevention systems.
After studying the impacts of the Asian tsunami in 2004, UNEP and IUCN reported that areas with intact, healthy coral reefs and mangrove forests escaped with little damage and loss of human life compared to areas where these systems had been gravely impacted by anthropogenic stressers. We regularly hear about the effect climate change and overfishing are having on our coastal ecosystems, and how their loss will affect livelihoods and sustenance for hundreds of millions of people, but those are future consequences and somewhat intangible to the everyday human life. What about the reality of a tsunami happening at anytime with little notice? Are we directly endangering our lives by harming coral reefs and other important coastal ecosystems?
It’s not just tsunamis that coastal ecosystems protect us from, they also help lessen the impact of erosion, and flooding and high waves from typhoons and hurricanes. These natural buffer zones are irreplaceable and immensely important to our protection, and on the plus side, they’re free. All we have to do is manage them in a sustainable way.