The Environmental Effect of Tsunamis

Reports about the tsunamis that devastated Southeast Asia barely a month ago have understandably been dominated by tales of death, suffering, and the physical destruction of infrastructure. But man was not alone in feeling the impact. Ecosystems and other species were also hit.

To be sure, photographic and video images relayed by the media have shown trees swept away by waves and water-drenched lands. Other reports have mentioned wildlife that escaped the destruction, as some sort of instinct seemed to tell them to seek higher ground prior to the arrival of the tsunami waves. And yet the full scope of the tsunamis’ environmental impact remains under-reported, despite its obvious importance for the recovery of the affected areas and the well being of the survivors.

Experience from previous tsunamis and other major floods suggests that the environmental damage they inflict is linked to saltwater intrusion in ground water and to the disappearance or relocation of beaches. Tsunamis may make small, low islands uninhabitable. Vegetation in large stretches of lowland can be hurt substantially as saltwater-tolerant mangroves and grasses take over from other species. For rare animals with specific reproduction sites, like marine turtles, the tsunami’s effects could spell extinction.

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