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Scientists study tsunami devastation in PNG - 11/08/1998

Two scientists from the Institute of Geological & Nuclear Sciences Limited are taking part in a major international study of the tsunami that killed more than a thousand people in Papua New Guinea in July.

Coastal hazards specialist James Goff and geomorphologist Mauri McSaveney are part of a New Zealand team funded by the National Society for Earthquake Engineering and led by engineer Peter Goldsmith.

They are working with scientists from the United States, Japan, Australia and Papua New Guinea in a bid to learn as much as they can from the catastrophic event.

Studies of the devastated area would provide useful information for all the participating nations, but will be particularly relevant to New Zealand, Dr Goff said.

The tsunami was generated by a magnitude 7 earthquake 30km offshore from the settlement of Aitape. It produced 10m-high waves that swept ashore killing more than 1000 people.

Dr Goff said it was a humanitarian nightmare, but from a scientific viewpoint specialists had a rare opportunity to get on the ground and examine the after-effects.

He said scientists would try to determine how the tsunami was generated, how it behaved when it hit the shore and estimate its destructive power.

The work would be directly relevant for coastal planning in New Zealand, for the preparation of emergency management plans, and for organisations such as the Earthquake Commission.

Among the New Zealand coastal areas that scientists have identified as particularly vulnerable to a tsunami are areas of the south coast of Wellington, and much of the city's central business district which is largely built on reclaimed land.

We've been lucky since European settlement. The fact that tsunamis are difficult to study doesn't remove that threat,'' Dr Goff said.

The main problem is complacency and I see this as dangerous.''

Dr Goff believes there are no coastal areas in New Zealand that are immune from tsunami hazards.

Four or five big tsunamis have hit New Zealand in the past 180 years. Well over 50 have hit during that time, although most were minor.

Dr Goff and environmental geochemist Catherine Chagu'e-Goff, also of the Institute of Geological & Nuclear Sciences Limited, last year found evidence of up to four previously unknown tsunami impacts in the wetlands of Abel Tasman National Park in the north-west of the South Island.

Dr Goff said there was not enough money allocated for tsunami research.

People produce models for coastal hazards, but what are they based on? There are big gaps in our knowledge because we're not doing enough research.

'' The parallels between what happened recently in Papua New Guinea and what will happen at some point in New Zealand are stunning. Yes, we have had 10m waves before. Yes, they've hit coastal areas that are densely populated now. We need to learn important lessons from this.''

Dr Goff said the big difference between the Papua New Guinea tsunamis and a future local tsunami was that New Zealand had more to lose in terms of infrastructure.

'' It's not a case of if it will happen, but when. And then it's a case of the cost. It will be phenomenal.

We know tsunamis are a bigger problem and are more ferquent than is generally believed, but we don't know exactly how big the problem is because there's been insufficient work on it. Our investigations in Papua New Guinea will provide fresh insights. ''

Contact: Mauri McSaveney