January 7, 2005

FOCUS: Tsunami Ecology

Research by Allison Bloch, Newsdesk.org Intern, and Michael Stoll, Guest Editor 

In response to the question of why stories about nature don’t usually become front-page news in the mainstream media, Frank Allen, a veteran journalist who had written for The Wall Street Journal once said, “Environmental stories don’t break, they ooze.” So it follows that when news does break, it has nothing to do with the environment. Or does it?

The day after Christmas, several environmental stories were spun out of a major event — a tsunami that swept the shores of 12 Asian countries and killed as many as 150,000 people. Most readers, naturally, assumed it was a human tragedy unrelated to the ecology. But an event this big had to have had an effect on the environment, and had to have been influenced by it, a number of news organizations have reported.

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Keyword search (tsunami global warming): Google News, Yahoo News
Keyword search (tsunami coral reefs): Google News, Yahoo News
Keyword search (tsunami environment): Google News, Yahoo News

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“Global warming is an impending catastrophe that has the potential to far exceed the scope of last week’s tsunami.” That was the prediction of a columnist in today’s Harvard Crimson. But regardless of the scientific validity of that statement, the assertion upset some conservatives who accused environmental activists of trying to blame the underwater earthquake on the greenhouse effect. As Grist Magazine points out, however, it’s not clear that many environmental leaders of consequence were making any such claims.

What is clear, however, is that the activities of humans had something to do with how bad this disaster was. Many of the reports are too preliminary and anecdotal to form the basis of any policy prescriptions yet. But some prominent scientists aver that:

–rising seas due to global warming accelerate coastal erosion, making tsunamis more destructive when they happen

–destruction of mangrove swamps in tidal zones to make way for shrimp farms remove a natural barrier to ocean surges

–coral reefs, which help break waves before they reach shore, have been decimated by pollution, poaching and changes in ocean temperature

–development along the coastlines — everything from poor fishing villages to Western beach resorts — make everything worse.

In the aftermath of the tsunami, some reporters have discovered that the ocean ecology has suffered additional insults as massive amounts of human detritus — including toxic chemicals — have been flushed into the ocean, causing unknown environmental problems. Cars and furniture have been washed away and could potentially damage coral reefs further.

“The Coming Tsunamis”
Harvard Crimson, January 7, 2005

“Tsunami Raises Many Environmental Issues”
Society of Environmental Journalists, January 5, 2005

“Tsunami May Have Damaged Coral Reefs”
Associated Press, January 6, 2005

“Rising seas threaten islands, cities, coasts”
Reuters, January 7, 2005

“You’re a Shadowboxer, Baby/Right-wingers exploit tsunami by accusing enviros of exploiting tsunami”
Grist Magazine, January 6, 2005

“Global warming, pollution add to coastal threats”
Reuters, December 28, 2004

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