NTU scientists head out on month-long sea expedition to assess tsunami risk

SINGAPORE - A team of scientists from the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) will on Saturday embark on a month-long sea expedition that will help them assess tsunami risk and impact in a region off Indonesia.

The region west of Sumatra is considered by earth scientists to be a high-risk zone known to have produced tsunami-spawning earthquakes, including the one in December 2004 that claimed more than 230,000 lives in 14 countries.

About 10 scientists, including those from NTU's Earth Observatory of Singapore - one of the university's research institutes that studies geological phenomenon such as earthquakes - will be part of this expedition.

The research project is done in partnership with the Schmidt Ocean Institute on board its 83m-long research vessel Falkor, and is jointly led by NTU, France√Ęs Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris and the Indonesian Institute of Sciences. The American non-profit Schmidt Ocean Institute focuses on oceanographic research.

This trip aims to assess the risk of tsunamis caused by earthquakes in the region by mapping the ocean floor where the tectonic plates meet each other.

It will target the region west of Siberut Island, - an offshore island near the city of Padang on Indonesia's west coast - identified as the Mentawai Gap. This is the only area of the geologically active Sumatra-Andaman subduction zone that has yet to have a major earthquake in the last 200 years.

A subduction zone refers to an area where two tectonic plates meet, with one moving under the other. Such sites usually experience high rates of volcanism, earthquakes and mountain building due to the immense pressure exerted on the plates.

Professor Paul Tapponnier from NTU's Earth Observatory, who is one of the chief scientists in charge of this expedition, said: "We know that the plates in the Sumatra-Andaman subduction zone move towards each other at about 4cm a year, which results in earthquakes roughly every 250 years.

"If we have better knowledge of the ocean floor and understand the mechanisms that cause tsunamis, we can help people to better prepare for the eventualities."

Schmidt Ocean Institute's director of research Victor Zykov, said: "Falkor's shipboard mapping echo sounders will be used to acquire high definition maps of seafloor deformations that resulted from recent earthquakes.

" This information is critical for the understanding of the origins of earthquakes and tsunamis in this region, and for the development of evacuation routes to help save human lives should similar calamities occur in the future."

All information and data obtained from this expedition, such as the high-resolution maps of the ocean seabed, will be shared publically with other scientists and research organisations.