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Scientists to study why parts of Sri Lanka were spared

WASHINGTON—The force of last week's tsunami spared patches of Sri Lanka, and a team of U.S. scientists is on its way to the devastated island to find out why.

For Harindra Joseph Fernando, the mission is personal.

Fernando's hometown—Moratuwa, a city of 181,000 people 12 miles south of Colombo—was spared. His family was spared, as were almost all of his friends. The water rose about 3 feet in his sister's backyard, but she was fine. His family even had phone service.

Moratuwa was one of several patches of relative safety in South Asia—including about 30 percent of Sri Lanka's coastline—and may have escaped devastation partly because it's on Sri Lanka's west coast, away from the epicenter of the quake that triggered the wave. But other western Sri Lankan cities, such as Galle, 50 miles south of Moratuwa, were decimated.

Galle will be the science team's first stop next week.

"It will be very difficult," Fernando told Knight Ridder Thursday. "It's very close to me, but what can you do?"

Sri Lanka isn't the only place where the impact of the 9.0 earthquake and its aftermath varied. Waters rose 8 feet at the Pacific coastal city of Manzanillo, Mexico, but only 8.6 inches in San Diego, said earthquake and tsunami expert Brian Atwater of the U.S. Geological Survey.

This isn't unusual. In past tsunamis, "you find how small areas are severely destroyed, but 20 miles down the road nothing happened," said American scientific team leader Philip Liu, a Cornell University engineering professor.

So now Fernando, the director of the fluid dynamics program and chief of a 105-foot wave tank at Arizona State University in Tempe, hopes that what he finds can help victims of future tsunamis be as fortunate as his family was.

If Fernando and his colleagues can better understand why some places are spared—it's based a lot on topography, both under water and on land—then it may help with predictions, he said. "Once (a quake) happens and the wave starts, then we have some time to do some quick calculations to see where the wave can go," he said.

One factor is the slope of the near-shore. If it's flat, the wave can keep coming. But if it slopes, it helps lessen the impact. Another factor, Fernando said, is whether other land masses deflect the wave and it "kind of bounces." If that happens, it creates a new wave. That's bad news.

Fernando, who left Sri Lanka in 1980, studies waves in general, but not tsunamis. It never seemed important to him before. It also had never been an issue in his homeland—not since 150 B.C. at least.

But now it is, and for Fernando, the scientific questions "have a more emotional context, too," he said.

The team of 10 scientists, funded by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Geological Survey, left Thursday and Friday for a week in the field. Like detectives, they hope to get to the natural crime scene before the evidence—water marks and soil shifts—disappears, Liu said.

"The longer we wait, the less chance that we can get that kind of physical evidence," Liu said.

Other members of the team will be scouring the soil and sand strewn about by the giant waves. This will help them know how better to categorize long-lost ancient tsunamis, such as those in the Seattle area, where the sediment is the only clue of what happened.

And that has to be studied quickly, said University of Washington graduate student Bretwood "Hig" Higman, who's on the sediment-studying team.

"It's just a tremendous opportunity," Higman said. "There are some things that are very ephemeral."

For Higman and the other sediment specialist, Bruce Jaffe, there's also danger: land mines that were planted during Sri Lanka's two-decades-long civil war. Some were likely moved and re-submerged by the tsunami.

Jaffe said if there's any chance that there are land mines in an area, he's not digging.

"Science is not that important to me," Jaffe said.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): TSUNAMI-SCIENTISTS

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