Thursday, December 22, 2005

Guest Blog: The Shaky Isles (Or, Did the Earth Move For You Too, Darling?)

Country Bumpkin reports in from New Zealand on the weird and the wet:
Erudite readers of Kiko's House will know of the Ig Nobel Prizes awarded annually at Harvard University. They commemorate unusually useless scientific research and other human endeavour, such as the study by Drs Chittaranjan Andrade and B.S. Srihari into the phenomenon of rhinotillexomania in a sample of 200 adolescents from 4 urban schools.

Rhinotillexomania is a term "used to describe compulsive nose picking" say the authors of the study, and they were deservedly awarded an Ig Nobel for their ground-breaking work.

It is in that fine tradition that I want to report to you today.

It is almost exactly a year since the Indian Ocean tsunami, and New Zealand lies on the fault in the earth's crust between the Pacific Plate and the Indian Plate. Earthquakes are common here, and occasionally severe (as in 1848, 1855 and 1931) so that Australians, may they be struck by lightning, like to call these islands the Shaky Isles.

Tsunamis have historically been common too, though curiously these have usually originated to the east in the direction of South America, and have not during times of human occupation been very severe. Nevertheless, some east coast communities ‹ only an hour's drive from this very spot ‹ have little signs on the beach front warning us to watch out for tsunamis. Which, being responsible citizens, we do.

And once the events of December 2004 had occurred and their scale had sunk in, nothing would do but that we needed to have a study of what might happen here if the earth really moved.

Now we learn that if we are in eastern towns like Gisborne, or Napier or at the beach, then maybe once every 500 years or so we could be hit by tsunamis ranging in height from 11.6 metres to 6.4 metres. If Gisborne suffered an 11.6 metre tsunami at night with no warning, then it "... would kill 2100 people, injure 4800 and destroy property worth $2.3 billion.

One assumes of course that these dollar values are at present prices without any allowance for 500 years of inflation. And we are given no clue to what would happen if the tsunami was 11.7 metres high.

All this heavy sarcasm will convey that I think this kind of research is a crock. Who, for heaven's sake, gives a toss what would happen if this calamity struck while they were in bed asleep? Who, for heaven's sake, is going to lie awake worrying about it? But you do have to concede that some very clever people were paid good money for this result, and that means they have been able to go out to buy Christmas presents for their children, which means the shopkeepers can go out for a round of golf over the holidays...

Put up more little signs, I'd say. That ought to do it.

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