LONDON — The chain reaction that sent enormous, deadly seismic sea waves crashing into the coasts of Asia and Africa on Sunday started more than six miles beneath the ocean floor off the tip of the Indonesian island of Sumatra.
Geologic plates pressing against each other slipped violently, creating a bulge on the sea bottom that could be as high as 10 yards and hundreds of miles long, one scientist said.
“It’s just like moving an enormous paddle at the bottom of the sea,” said David Booth, a seismologist at the British Geological Survey. “A big column of water has moved; we’re talking about billions of tons. This is an enormous disturbance.”
Moving at about 500 mph, the waves took more than two hours to reach Sri Lanka, where the human toll has been horrific, and longer to spread to India and the east coast of Africa.
And because such tsunamis rarely occur in the Indian Ocean, there is no system in place to warn coastal communities they are about to be hit, such as exists in the Pacific, Booth said.
An Australian scientist had suggested in September that an Indian Ocean warning system be set up, but it takes a year to create one. Also, those living along the Indian Ocean’s shores were less likely than Pacific coastal dwellers to know the warning signs of an impending tsunami, Booth said.
Thousands were killed in countries from Indonesia to Somalia.
The underwater quake, which the U.S. Geological Survey put at magnitude 9.0, was the biggest since 1964, when a 9.2-magnitude temblor struck Alaska, touching off tsunamis that reached Northern California.
Enzo Boschi, the head of Italy’s National Geophysics Institute, likened the quake’s power to detonating a million atomic bombs the size of those dropped on Japan during World War II, and said the shaking was so powerful it even disturbed Earth’s rotation.
“All the planet is vibrating” from the quake, he told Italian state radio. Other scientists said it was early to say whether the rotation was affected by the quake.
The earthquake occurred at a spot where the Indian Ocean plate is gradually being forced underneath Sumatra, which is part of the Eurasian plate, at about the speed at which a human fingernail grows, Booth explained.
“This slipping doesn’t occur smoothly,” he said. Rocks along the edge stick against one another and pent-up energy builds over hundreds of years.
It’s “almost like stretching an elastic band, and then when the strength of the rock isn’t sufficient to withstand the stress, then all along the fault line the rocks will move,” he said.
The force of Sunday’s earthquake shook unusually far afield, causing buildings to sway hundreds of miles from the epicenter, from Singapore to the city of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, and in Bangladesh.
Booth said instruments at his lab in Edinburgh, Scotland, detected tiny tremors resulting from the quake, although they were far too small for anyone in Britain to feel. He said it was not unusual for seismologists to pick up readings from large quakes that happen very far away.
As the waves moved across deep areas of the ocean in the early morning, they may have been almost undetectable on the surface, with swells of about a yard or less. But when they approached land the huge volumes of water were forced to the surface and the waves grew higher, swamping coastal communities and causing massive casualties.
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