It was a Triple Hit in 1959: the Prospect for the Same in Future Remains High

The hurricane had lost its sting by dawn of 30 December 1959 on Dravuni, but it was quickly followed by an earthquake and a tsunami – one after the other. So, from the comfort of their houses – seeking safety from the strong hurricane gales, to the safety of the village green where collateral damage from an earthquake would be minimal, to the top of the hills behind the village to escape from the clutch of the tsunami, the villagers could only thank their lucky stars that there were no human casualties. This was when global warming and climate change were hardly issues. The prospect for the future however, given the focus on these global issues and the immensity of the threats that we know they pose, can only be regarded as ominous.

Official records confirm that the hurricane that struck that day was a moderate one producing high seas in southern Viti Levu. The high seas were “in the nature of tidal waves that swept inland and destroyed many coastal villages.”

I have searched high and low for any record of the earthquake that followed the hurricane but to no avail. Evidently, some records only list earthquakes of strength greater than Mw 6.5 on the Richter scale. More recent listing of earthquakes, however, seems to include all tremors; and it is amazing to realize that tremors are happening all the time. Many have hardly consequences to be concerned about.  On the day I checked on 30 August 2016 at 12 noon, for example, there had been two tremors already recorded near South Pacific Ocean that day. One was of 4.5 magnitude at 350km depth; the other was of 4.3 magnitude at 525km depth.

Be that as it may, what can be said however is that I and the rest of the villagers felt the earthquake that day. That was the reason why we left the comfort of our homes and sought the village green to get away from structures that could have collapsed. Furthermore, we later saw the evidence of what could have caused the tremor; and that was the millions of soata or pumice that could have only come from an undersea volcanic eruption and brought onto the village by the tsunami.

It can be imagined therefore that with the force of the undersea volcanic eruption and the hurricane whipping up gigantic waves at sea, a tsunami resulting from these natural phenomena would be mind-blowing. “Nature,” the international weekly journal of science of 20 April 2006 reported “that hurricanes can pile up sediment underwater that could then slip, causing tsunami.”

The tsunami was just phenomenal. The roar when the huge waves struck the encircling reefs was like two Boeing 747s landing at the same time. The height of the waves dwarfed the top of the coconut trees and the houses closest to the beach. The waves came crashing down and created a lake in the village and deposited millions of pumice, hundreds of dead fishes and tons of sand from the floor of the ocean and from the seashore itself. By this time, the villagers were essentially hapless onlookers from the safety of the hills and being stunned by the demonstration of nature’s massive power. The saving grace for the villagers was that all this was happening at daylight break and this allowed for all, including infants and the elderly to be moved to safety.

It took about two days for the lake of seawater to drain out completely from the village. Afterwards, the clean-up of pumice and dead fishes started before normal life could resume. I recall the inside of mum and dad’s house, Levuka, next to Natavasara was full of little balls of pumice that came through the holes and the gaps between the floor boards.

All this was way back in 1959/1960 when global warming theory (also referred to as climate change) had hardly entered our daily lexicon. Even if we dissociate ourselves from the politics of the causes of global warming and still approach the issue from the perspective that ‘science is not settled,’ it is still evident that global warming is happening, either naturally or anthropogenically. Therefore disaster will still happen. The scale of it however is likely to be much more destructive than anything we have seen in the past.

Other aspects of environmental degradation also contribute to the potential threat of major destruction. During my recent visit to Dravuni in May 2016, I was able to see clearly the realignment of the coastline due to its erosion through waves and tidal movements. I was able to gauge this by assessing the relative distance to a fringing reef on which I used to fish as a boy. In the early days, I would just wade into the water a short distance to get onto the reef even at high tide. Today, one has to swim further to get to the reef; not that the reef had physically moved out to sea, but because the coastline has eroded inland.

“Geological Disasters in Fiji” a paper by R Singh and F Whippy in 1987, noted that coastal erosion is also a geological hazard. I suppose that this all relates to the redistribution of weight on the underlying tectonic plates as a result of increased weight of seawater on parts of the tectonic plate that did not experience such weight before. This then triggers seismic activities. This is happening within the Kadavu zone which is already declared as a major seismic zone. So, more earthquakes are in store for the future.

Global warming and its consequential rising sea level, along with other natural phenomena brought on by climate change as a whole are serious global issues that are testing human resolve. If the events of 1959 on Dravuni are of any indication when these issues were still relatively localized and hardly of global proportion, the situation tomorrow can only be of great concern. For Dravuni and its occupants, it is like sailing into the distant horizon, the vast expanse of the ocean strewn with menacing hazards, but they are not able to steer the canoe by the stars that their ancestors had done for generations because such traditional skill can no longer cope with the perils of today.

Image credit: An underwater volcano erupted in Hunga Ha’apai, Tonga, 19 March 2009, sending steam and ash thousands of feet into the sky above the southern Pacific Ocean. (Matangi Tonga Online/Reuters)



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