The Weston Observatory sits deep in the woods of the Boston suburbs, a full 17 miles from its parent institution, Boston College. Part of school’s Geology Department, the humble brick geophysical research lab was built in 1949 as part of the Jesuit’s Weston College.
Weston College is now closed – most of the grounds converted to a health center –and BC bought the observatory in the late 1970s. The building has a squat, post-war feel to it, but the scientists there have a pretty impressive scientific claim to fame –- they monitor and record New England’s earthquakes.
And, while a map of nearly 40 years of seismicity in of New England looks pretty busy, serious earthquakes are rare around these parts. When the earth does shake, the phones start ringing and the TV trucks find their way up to the lab. Then, it quiets down again
In between tremors, the staff at the center engages in both geologic and paleobiological research. And, they run a very popular colloquium series that fills a meeting room each month. A small room, but it was crowded for Wednesday night’s talk by Emile Okal, a Northwestern University geophysicist in from Chicago for a talk on “Tsunamis: Challenges for Scientists.”
With a French accent, a sense of humor and PowerPoint slides, Okal talked to the group about how earthquakes trigger tsunamis. But, he, noted that they can also be caused by landslides (1999 in the Marquesas), volcanic eruptions at sea (1883 in Kracatoa) and, “occasionally, we can have bolides falling out of the sky. “ A bolide is meteorite – like the one that hit an area now known as the Yucatan 65 million years ago. It left huge crater and tsunami deposits with meteor fragments have been found as far away as Texas and Brazil, Okal said.
“There is also some talk that it affected the climate so much, that the dinosaurs became extinct, but I don’t want to get into that controversy,” he said,
Audience members laughed, but Okal noted that the theory is the subject of debate; India was the site of major volcanic eruptions at the same time, he said.
In terms of the devastating 2004 tsunami, Okal said the Pacific Tsunami Monitoring Center in Hawaii was alerted to an earthquake in Indonesia, but was not charged with or set up to monitor activity in the Indian Ocean.
“There were shortcomings from the standpoint of science,” he said “We didn’t get the true size of the event, but we did know that it was very big.”
The bigger problem was communication. There was no protocol for warning officials in the India, Thailand and Sri Lanka, he said.
“This is not what you want in an emergency situation. You want a system that has been designed, which has been tested, which is foolproof, which is perfectly operational where everybody knows what to do. This is what failed in 2004.”
Pacific nations like Japan are more prepared for tsunamis. So, despite the huge loss of life, the response to last year’s Japan quake was a success in some ways. Although more than 20,000 people were killed, more than 200,000 were at risk, he said.
While many of the coastal citizens knew how to protect themselves, from the waves – they sought higher ground — the designers of the Fukushima nuclear plant did not, Okal said. Tsunamis have been know to generate 20 meter (65-foot) waves in Japan, but the walls around the plant and much of the coast are only 6 meters (20 feet) high.
“You don’t design a nuclear plant by putting the most the most vulnerable part” –the power source — “behind a 6 meter wall,” he said. “ The fact that the plant was designed in such a completely negligent way – it becomes criminal.”
Aware that we wasn’t addressing other scientists, Okal touched on some technical points – and quickly veered away from them. He said two things help him when he has to speak to an audience of lay people. He comes from a family of teachers so “its in my genes,” he said. And he teaches a class on “disasters” to undergrads. So, he has to keep it simple.
“If you put an equation on the board, they drop the class,” he said.
Okal’s talk was the last of the Observatory’s Spring Colloquium series. The series also included talks on “Exploring The Potential Of Mineral Biosignatures Of Precambrian Sedimentary Rocks For Exobiology…Geothermal Heating And Cooling For Homes And Businesses In New England…Tracking Hurricanes And Nor’Easters Off The U.S. and East Coast Using Land-Based Seismometers and OffShore Buoys.” Visitors can also schedule tours or check out the upcoming open house on June 13.