Shakin’ Things Up

Bigwavesurf.jpgSeveral natural disasters rocked Southeast Asia and Oceania last week, including a typhoon in the Philippines, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia; a tsunami in the Samoas; and an earthquake in Indonesia. Whoa! Talk about shaking things up. I couldn’t help but think while reading about all of these disasters that it is high time (or high tide?) to revisit our geographic knowledge of this area of the world.

First, a recap of what’s happening over there:
Typhoon Ketsana roared through the island nation of the Philippines two weekends ago, causing hundreds of deaths and destroying the homes of over two million people. Ketsana then continued toward the Southeast Asian mainland, ripping through Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Severe floods continued to ruin homes and farmland throughout the week.

Devastation in the region persisted last Tuesday as a magnitude 8 earthquake generated a tsunami that hit Samoa and American Samoa, causing dozens of deaths and sweeping whole villages into the Pacific Ocean. Not long after waves began to topple buildings in the Samoas, another earthquake rattled off the coast of Sumatra, the largest of Indonesia’s 17,000 islands.  Hospitals were crushed, thousands were killed, and the city of Padang is frantically trying to shift through the chaos.

So what’s geography got to do with it?

Is a typhoon any different from a hurricane?
Well, no. Just the name is different. “Typhoon” is the regional word for a cyclone in the Northwest Pacific Ocean west of the international dateline. Cyclones in the Atlantic Ocean, as well as those on the east side of the dateline in the Pacific Ocean, are called “hurricanes.” [Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory]

On a related note, what happens if a hurricane moving east crosses the dateline?
Does it automatically become a typhoon? Maybe a silly question, but it’s stumping this nerdy geographer. If you have a good answer, let me know!
Samoa and American Samoa– what’s the difference?
Many people may not realize that Samoa and American Samoa are two different places; Samoa is an independent island nation of about 220,000 people, while American Samoa is a U.S. territory with over 46,000 residents.  Most citizens across the whole island chain are Samoans, speak Samoan, and share similar customs and traditions.

What does a tsunami look like?
I (and perhaps you as well) have visions of a giant, surf-worthy wave cruisin’ along at breakneck speed, eventually crashing over an island, destroying everything underneath it. Not true. In the open ocean, you hardly notice a tsunami wave, which takes the form of a rapidly moving “bulge.” It doesn’t become a monster wave until it reaches shallow water, which pushes the wave up, causing an enormous wall of water.

I could also go on and on about Indonesia, but since we discussed Indonesia a month ago (check out the “This Day in Geology” post from September 2nd) I’ll end with just one more thought for ya’ll:

Why is this area of the world so prone to catastrophe?
It seems like Southeast Asia and Oceania have more than their fair share of natural disasters, especially since it seems like we hear about devastating tsunamis, flooding, etc. every week. Is this due to their particular geographic location? A lack of warning systems? Poor organization of people and resources? Climate change? As geographers, these are vital questions we should ask ourselves everyday, not just regarding this part of our wonderful world, but everywhere else, too!

Maggie for My Wonderful World

Image courtesy Roy Miller.

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