21 | NOV | 2019
Can a tsunami strike Mexico?
Large waves break off the shoreline – Photo: Vern Fisher/AP

Can a tsunami strike Mexico?

05/11/2019
19:04
Cynthia Talavera
Mexico City
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In the last 250 years, at least 55 tsunamis have struck Mexico’s Pacific coasts

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Although the word “tsunami” is usually linked to Japan, in Mexico, danger due to a natural phenomenon of this kind is a reality. In the Mexican Pacific, at least 55 tsunamis have been registered in the last 250 years, according to information from the Geophysics Institute of the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

The most devastating one took place on March 28, 1787. An 8.6 degrees earthquake on the coast of Oaxaca caused a tsunami that invaded six kilometers inland in the region known today as Angel port.

Since earthquakes have caused more damages during the 20th and 21st centuries in our country, tsunamis are rarely talked about, can a tsunami strike Mexico?

“The answer is yes. Based in the historical earthquakes registry in our country and of the tsunamis we know of, it is tangible and realist to suppose that there can be important tsunamis in the future, as big as the one that took place in 1787,” highlighted Dr. Víctor Cruz Atienza to EL UNIVERSAL, considered one of the 10 most outstanding scientists in 2017 by Nature magazine.

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The great tsunami that devastated Mexico
On June 22, 1932, in Cuyutlán, Colima, there was a tsunami that reached waves of up to 10 meters and caused the death of 50 persons.

“A gigantic wave crashed yesterday in Cuyutlán: there were 30 dead,” could be read in EL UNIVERSAL’s June 23 edition.

“The latest news coming from Cuyutlán about the numerous houses affected by the gigantic wave. The main street was left completely barren and many were buried in the sand.

“There are just ruins and debris everywhere and it is calculated that the number of victims is of 30 between the drowned and the injured,” as said this newspaper after the tragedy.

Fish and sharks on the beach, streets without light, full of debris, only a few buildings still standing, and injured people were what this natural phenomenon left behind, affecting an area of 20 square kilometers.

People preferred to sleep outside than to return to the buildings that were not torn down with the strength of the waves.

A similar scene repeated last year in Mexico when several earthquakes struck Juchitán in a chain that seemed to never end, and that caused a good part of its inhabitants to sleep on the streets out of fear.

The 1932 tsunami showed that Mexico was not prepared to face a phenomenon of this kind. EL UNIVERSAL read on the front page the next day: “Urgent help needed,” “More corpses under the ruins,” “Cause of the catastrophe: Enormous oceanic fault.”

“Before the astonished eyes of neighbors from Cuyutlán, the sea left the beach, pulled by a mysterious force. On the sandy surface imponent, sea beasts fought… They say the sea came back, infuriated, to the beach. Rising to an immeasurable height, the fantastic green wave became the tragic end for men and reconquered its ancient lands. It penetrated the land, destroying everything on its way, to come back, finally, to its natural dominions, freeing the beasts caught by the land and taking with it men, women, houses, trees, and everything it could.”

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Disaster response
Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) is developing a project with UNAM, CENAPRED and the Universities of Kyoto, Kobe, and Tohoku to lessen the risks associated with big earthquakes and tsunamis in the Mexican Pacific.

“The main objective of the project is to reduce the risks linked to tsunamis and earthquakes in central Mexico, including its coasts and Mexico City,” as explained by Dr. Cruz Atienza, leader of the Mexican team.

Guerrero was the state chosen for the project for it has a 140 km long area where a big earthquake is expected to take place in the near future.

The project is made by three teams: Team 1 “is focused on the instrumentation and interpretation of sea and land. Seismometers have been installed in the bottom of the sea to register seismicity, as well as geodesic stations that allow measuring the deformation suffered by the continent under the sea near the oceanic trench, the area where a tsunami will be generated if there is an earthquake.”

Cruz Atienza explained that they are interested in knowing how close are the tectonic plates and they are using cutting-edge technology that not even Japan has used and that consists of sensors of hydrostatic pressure, acoustic GPS to know how the ocean floor moves.

“What we want is to quantify the seismic potential, how much energy and how fast it accumulates to pose scenarios of future earthquakes with as much information as possible to simulate them and quantify the floor’s movement and the tsunamis they would generate.”

With the information gathered by Team 1, Team 2 performs earthquakes and tsunamis simulations to quantify the associated danger and Team 3 translates this information into specific measures to reduce danger, educate the population, and design specific strategies to make people less vulnerable in areas where the risk is higher.

The idea is to calculate the seismic and tsunamic potential that allows generating “danger maps,” needed in prevention plans. These maps will contain information on the most violent expected tremors, waves’ heights, and areas that could be flooded should there be a tsunami.

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Prevention, the key
Japan’s 2011 tsunami reached waves of 10 meters high and left over 10 thousand dead. The 2004 submarine earthquake, known as the Sumatra-Andatán, caused a series of devastating tsunamis that caused the death of over 260 thousand people. How could the risk and damages be reduced?

“By reducing our vulnerability,” asserts Dr. Cruz Atienza, who is still surprised that more resources are destined to damages caused by natural disasters than to their prevention. He says that Mexican politicians with whom he has talked about the topic see these natural disasters as something against which there is not much to do.

“The risk, which is the possibility of suffering from damages, depends on the natural disaster, that is, earthquakes, floods, volcanoes, etc. Our responsibility as seismologists is to know then, quantify the, knowing of what size these quakes could be in the future; any prevention strategy derives from that, which is precisely how our vulnerability can be reduced.”

For the head of the Seismology Department of UNAM’s Geophysics Institute, “disasters due to natural causes are a social construct, that is, a consequence of the decisions taken by society and notoriously by its authorities, that are the ones with the biggest action power. The most important is to prevent that a phenomenon, a natural threat, translates into catastrophe. Prevention is a fundamental strategy to reduce our vulnerability and hence, the risk.”

Building codes that are followed, early alert systems, and educating the population are measures to reduce vulnerability.

“Until today, it is impossible to predict an earthquake or a tsunami. We, researchers, are trying to better understand these phenomena hoping to be able to know when, where, and how big the next one will be.

Will there be more earthquakes? Of course, there will. Like the one from 1985? It is highly probable. What we can do is doing things right so that when it happens we can avoid a catastrophe. In many cases, there is a lot to do.”

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