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While last month’s tsunami in the Indian Ocean was a
devastating act of nature, technology is playing a critical role in the
aftermath. TechRepublic’s
Tsunamis and Technology resources page
demonstrates the varied ways the
world is using technology to document the tsunami’s damage, rescue and support
survivors, help reunite families, and begin to rebuild the devastated
infrastructure. Moreover, as the world rushes aid to the victims of this
tragedy, technology has also helped us grasp the sheer enormity of this

According to the Guinness World Records Web site, which has already
labeled the 2004 Indian Ocean seismic wave as the most lethal tsunami in
recorded history, the earthquake that spawned the wave represented an energetic
output equivalent to detonating 32 billion tons of dynamite. That’s about 2.5
million times more powerful than “Little Boy,” the atomic bomb
dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.

Put another way, even if you added together the total output
of both the atomic bombs dropped on Japan, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami
represented enough destructive energy to end World War II a million times over.

But nuclear weapons and tsunamis have more in common than
mere issues of scale. When post-WWII nuclear testing began, scientists openly
feared that undersea atomic detonations could conceivably create an artificial—and
possibly radioactive—tsunami.

Since international treaties now explicitly outlaw undersea
nuclear testing, the possibility of such a man-made tsunami has become much
more remote—but not as impossible as you might think.

While the 2004 tsunami spread destruction across most of the
Indian Ocean, many tsunamis are far more local in nature. As such, they require
significantly less energy to generate yet provide far less warning to the
affected coastlines.

While no nuclear explosion has ever generated a tsunami, a
far more conventional accident occurred during World War I, which demonstrated
the human potential for generating localized tsunamis.


What World War I accident notoriously led to perhaps the
world’s first and only true “man-made” tsunami?

On Dec. 6, 1917, two supply ships collided in the harbor at
Halifax, Nova Scotia, resulting in a massive explosion that created a localized
tsunami that, along with the fire and shrapnel from the explosion itself,
devastated the city in one of the worst maritime disasters in modern history.

Halifax boasts one of the most ideal and ideally defensible
natural harbors in the world. However, during World War I, the port suffered
from a glut of Allied ship traffic ferrying supplies from North America to

Eventually, the worst-case scenario occurred when the fully
loaded French munitions supply ship Mont
collided with the Belgian relief vessel Imo (formerly of the White Star Line, which also owned the Titanic), setting fire to more than
2,500 tons combined of TNT, picric acid, gun cotton, and benzol.

But the explosion was not immediate. The Mont Blanc merely caught fire following
the collision, in effect becoming a time bomb as the flames crept toward the
munitions holds.

While the explosion flattened or incinerated most of the
buildings near the harbor, the harbor itself confined the seismic force of the
explosion, creating a localized tsunami that flooded the entire coastline
surrounding the harbor. By the time workers had extinguished the fires and the
water had receded, the disaster had effectively wiped the harbor town of
Richmond off the map.

All told, more than 2,000 people died in the Halifax
explosion and ensuing tsunami, and thousands more suffered injuries. While
man-made tsunamis are difficult to induce, these pale imitations of natural
tidal waves nonetheless illustrate how deadly tsunamis can be.

The Quibble of the Week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of
this week’s Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article.
Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and
discuss it in the next edition of Geek Trivia.

This week’s quibble is not a quibble at all, but the kind of
generous and flattering sentiment that makes writing this column worthwhile.
Thanks to TechRepublic member The Dutchy,
who wrote the following in response to the Dec. 22 edition of Geek Trivia, “And called them by

“This time of year is the time we look back on 12
months of our lives. A lot of things have happened, varying from personal
triumphs to the incomprehensible world-scale disaster in Asia.

“I just realized that it was only a year ago when we
were told we would have to do without Geek Trivia in 2004. Our collective storm
of protests made the guys of TechRepublic reconsider.

“The Geek should go on eternally—you can retire earlier
than that, Jay, but only if you give us a successor!—for it has put a smile on
my face in times there was not much to smile about. Let’s hope 2005 will be a
better year for the world. Happy New Year, everyone.”

Indeed, let us hope this year is better than the last and
that fate finds you all more kindly than in times past. Best wishes and fondest
hopes to you all.

For more, check out the Geek Trivia Archive.

The Trivia Geek, also
known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who’s
duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic
books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.