Friday, October 23, 2009

Sheikhin' Stevens

Well, I didn't manage to do anything particularly fun last weekend, unless you count going to the lavatory 20 times within the space of 48 hours time well spent. And so, pending verification from the Guinness Book of Records for my claim to have suffered the most rapid and total dehydration ever experienced by human being, I’d best think of something else to write about.

Luckily, something did happen just over a week ago that also got the old bowels rumbling. For the second time in two months, I found myself running frantically down flights of stairs and into the street, whilst the building I was in wobbled ominously around me. Many of you will have had similar experiences I am sure and will have found yourselves standing out on the pavement looking pointlessly up at the building that you just exited, wondering what would happen if a really big earthquake hit the capital.

Presumably, such a quake would make Padang look like a tea party in comparison. In fact, I was sent a warning on my office’s internal messaging system this week telling me to avoid buildings this Saturday as an earthquake registering 8.5 on the Richter scale would hit Jakarta on that day (today!). How this scaremonger had managed to achieve a feat that has eluded every geologist and seismologist in the world, namely the ability to predict both the time and place of earthquakes, wasn't made clear in the message.

At least our soothsayer hadn’t attempted to attach any theological significance to his prediction though, as has been the case in the wake of the Padang disaster. Various clerics have tried to match up the times of the tremors with passages in the Koran and were amazed to find verses of fire and brimstone corresponding to the hour and minute of the tectonic rumblings in question. Just possibly, if I chose a passage out of a holy book purely at random, then I would be quite likely to find similar descriptions of death and destruction however I thought that I would rise to the challenge that this latest Jakarta tremor has presented me with.

My watch registered 4.55pm when the tremblor struck and so, being from a Judaeo-Christian lineage, I thought that I'd try and match this time up with something from the Bible. A quick Google search (as I seem to have mislaid my own Bible) threw up the Book of Ezra, chapter 4, verse 55: "and likewise, the charges of the Levites, to be given them until the day that the house were finished and Jerusalem builded." It works! Well kind of. Houses being finished? There you go. It's all been preordained in the Scriptures.

Science, by contrast, admits to its limitations regarding the issue of earthquake prediction. In fact, we know far more about the centre of the Sun, a relatively simple system of lighter elements, than we do about what's under our feet. For well understood fault lines, seismic hazard assessment maps can estimate the probability that an earthquake of a given magnitude will affect a given location over a certain number of years, and that's about it. In terms of early warning systems, a few seconds is the most you're going to be able to get before major shaking arrives to lay waste to your place of residence.

On the other hand though, throughout history, observations of unusual animal behavior observed before earthquakes have been recorded by people from almost all civilizations. Some animals are indeed much more sensitive than human beings in terms of being able to detect vibrations or ultrasonic waves, although extensive research hasn't produced a lot of strong data on their powers of prediction.

Apparently, in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, a few minutes before the killer Asian Tsunami of December 2004, a herd of 500 blackbucks rushed away from coastal areas to the safety of a nearby hilltop. Alas though, the best you can probably hope for is that your dog starts howling about five seconds before your roof collapses on your head.

Well there you have it then, unless you're going to start living and working in a tent out in the street, then I'd forget about the big one if I were you and file it away at the back of your mind where it can haunt your dreams along with global warming, asteroid impacts and SARS. Indeed, in my more cynical moments, I find the prospect of Jakarta being utterly razed to the ground and laid waste to be quite an appealing one. Upended Busway buses falling into huge yawning chasms in the streets, deadly dull shopping malls being rent asunder, parliament coming crashing down on the heads of sleeping politicians, the entire city collapsing into Jakarta Bay leaving space for a rebirth, it would make for a great movie at the very least. They should get Miyabi in to play the plucky, mini-skirted seismologist whose warnings aren't heeded. I can see it now, Jakarta, West of Krakatau. It would be Karakatau, East of Java remade for the Blackberry generation and feature plenty of wobbling cleavage when the tremor strikes.

So it’s now Saturday. How are we doing for time? Did the 8.5 level big one materialize or not? Or do we live to fight another day?