Message from the Director
A deepening comprehension of our planetary processes, resources and history goes hand in hand with coping with the major challenges of a restless Earth. If we do not fully understand how our dynamic planet works, we will not fully understand the hazards we face.
Natural hazards such as earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions and global climate change pose great threats to rapidly expanding populations worldwide. The devastations of Acehnese and Thai coasts in 2004, of New Orleans in 2005, of southwest Java in 2006, of Sichuan and Myanmar in 2008, of Haiti in 2010 and of Japan in 2011 are recent examples of our vulnerability and exposure.
Southeast Asia is, of course, no exception. During the first decade of the 21st century it has suffered numerous catastrophic events. The region faces also the lurking threat of sea-level rise whose long-term local effects are still unknown.
In 2009 the Earth Observatory of Singapore was launched, with the broad goal to conduct fundamental research on geohazards in and around Southeast Asia, toward safer and more sustainable societies.
The Earth Observatory has therefore two purposes: acquiring scientific knowledge on complex natural phenomena, and passing this knowledge on to affected populations so they can use it effectively and in timely fashion.
The Earth Observatory of Singapore is well positioned to face these challenges. Our research teams are blazing new paths through the fascinating mysteries of the Earth’s complex systems. Through our outreach activities we increase awareness of our planet and geohazards to help ensure a more sustainable human presence in Southeast Asia and to make the world a safer place.
The water in Bali’s volcanic Lake Batur is rising. The level has crept up nearly four meters in the last few years, threatening crops and villages. No one is quite sure why. It has not happened in any local resident’s memory. This is just a small example of how a volcano’s transformative power can impact lives and livelihoods.
There has never been a time when the sum of human knowledge is sufficient, but when nature presents the unexpected it is human imagination and innovation that drive discoveries that provide a better understanding of our world and improve the way we live. At the Earth Observatory of Singapore, we support and invest in discovery-based science that can lead to great advances in the science of Earth hazards.
Women sort chilies in an earthquake damaged building in the central market of Padang, West Sumatra. The daily bustle of buying and selling continues in and around collapsed structures, an ominous reminder that earthquakes and tsunamis are a real and present danger to societies along this Indonesian coastline. Progress has been made to raise awareness and promote evacuation strategies but enormous challenges remain.
Southeast Asia provides a natural laboratory to study Earth deformation processes. The goal in this area of the Earth Observatory’s research is to increase fundamental knowledge of the region’s tectonic and seismic behavior as a basis for more reliable forecasting.
A fisherman on the west coast of Sumatra may not give much consideration to the long history of earthquake-driven tsunamis in the place he lives and works. Collective memory is not long enough to remind local people of the dangers. The last great tsunami occurred near Padang in 1833 when the population was small. Now there are more than half a million people living in low-lying communities close to the sea.
Our science has shown that in West Sumatra Province, a great earthquake resulting in a devastating tsunami is likely sometime in the coming decades. Though it is not possible to predict the exact day, month, or year when this may happen, the Earth Observatory of Singapore works to build bridges to educators, community leaders and decision makers who can help individuals and their families prepare for disaster to the best of their abilities.
Morning light touches the peak of Mount Agung, the tallest volcano in Bali. Agung has been sleeping since 1963. On February 18 of that year it erupted with such force that the pyroclastic flows extended seven kilometers. Villages were devastated and nearly two thousand people lost their lives.
Volcanic arcs in Southeast Asia are among the most active on Earth. Earth Observatory volcanologists conduct geologic, geochemical and geophysical studies to improve understanding of volcanic activity, particularly processes related to eruptions. The Earth Observatory’s research in this field is designed to produce knowledge and tools that will help forecast volcanic eruptions, assess their environmental and societal impacts, and expand efforts to mitigate hazards.
Climate Change and Extreme Weather
In the mid-day heat, a young woman cools her water buffaloes in the river. The monsoon rains have arrived, bringing life-sustaining water to the Shan Plateau of Myanmar. The monsoon, that is essential to Myanmar’s agrarian society, is also a powerful and tempestuous source of destruction. With ever-increasing populations in lowlands and coastal areas, all of Southeast Asia is becoming more vulnerable to tropical cyclones, floods, rising sea levels and irregularities in seasonal weather.
Global climate change is driven by the interactions between the atmosphere and the oceans. Creating models of ocean and atmospheric circulation today and understanding how these interactions have influenced climate in the past are important to answering vital questions about regional weather. The outcomes could form a strong basis for hydrological climate change impact studies and understanding flood risk in Southeast Asia.
Imagine a day—say, ten thousand years ago—on what is now the Shan Plateau of Myanmar. The Asian monsoon has swept in and is depositing its heavy rains. The water seeps into the earth, filters slowly through the bedrock and finally falls through absolute darkness into ancient limestone caves below. There the mineral rich water forms carbonate structures called speleothems that will reveal monsoon behaviors over millennia.
Speleothems hold a key to climate-driven environmental processes and can be analyzed to reconstruct regional precipitation changes. Every day, over many thousands of years, these formations accumulate evidence of monsoonal behaviors almost like the rings of a tree. At the Earth Observatory of Singapore, scientists are using these paleoclimate archives to better understand and model future rainfall patterns and climate variability.
Sustainability and Resilience
The 15th century Khmer kingdom of Angkor was the largest metropolis of the ancient world, with a population numbering over a million. But the vast flood-control infrastructure was unable to cope with abrupt and extreme rainfall that followed decades of weakened summer monsoons. In short order Angkor was abandoned. The disappearance of Angkor is a cautionary tale for modern societies on the knife-edge of sustainability.
The Applied Projects Group at the Earth Observatory works with government agencies and private sector organizations in the region to apply geohazards knowledge to projects such as infrastructure development, disaster resilience planning and adapting to climate change. The group acts as a bridge, a broker and catalyst to fulfill the Earth Observatory of Singapore’s outreach goals against the backdrop of a rapidly developing Southeast Asia.
Urbanization and Risk
Humanity has reached a significant demographic milestone. For the first time in history more people will live in cities than in the countryside. According to predictions by the United Nations over 60% of us will live in cities by 2030. As population growth outpaces basic infrastructure, the threat of geohazards in Southeast Asia’s densely populated urban environments poses grave challenges.
The Earth Observatory of Singapore is advancing research on urban risk and infrastructure vulnerabilities that are associated with seismic activity, climate change, rising sea levels and air quality. The goals are to increase our collective capacity to understand and anticipate geohazards, promote the science necessary for engineering solutions and affect more proactive public policy.
Telling the Story
Bringing the science of Earth hazards to life for a broad audience and across languages is a significant—and vital—cultural challenge. Human stories are intertwined with the reality of natural disasters and telling these stories reaches beyond scientific papers and journals, engaging our collective imagination. We believe that visual and literary arts serve to broaden understanding of the Earth’s systems and can even save lives.
The Earth Observatory of Singapore communicates our science through educational films, publications, fine art and digital media. We seek to develop deeper relationships with local and global partners, to share our stories and realize the Earth Observatory’s mission of creating safer and more sustainable societies.
Photographs and design by Joanne Petrina and Samuel Chia
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