Stearns: The methods of nature

Last Saturday, the people of Chile took serious damage from a major earthquake; many lives were lost. And Hawaii dodged the tsunami bullet … this time.

I spent the day pinned to the news, waiting for the wave to strike, relieved that when it did, it was small, for I was born on the Big Island of Hawaii shortly after an 8.6 earthquake in Alaska launched the tsunami of April 1, 1946. The DJ of the most popular morning show in Honolulu was J. Akuhead Pupule — Crazy Tuna Head in Hawaiian Pidgin. His audience, used to not taking him seriously, wrote his warnings off as an April Fool’s joke. When the tsunami hit at 7:30 a.m. Monday, the school buses were just pulling into the parking lot at Laupahoehoe Elementary School, north of Hilo. When the children saw the ocean receding and fish flopping in pools that had never been there before, they rushed down, were caught by the incoming wave and were swept out to sea, along with pieces of their school.

Some of the children climbed onto broken pieces of wooden buildings and were swept thirty miles up the coast. Obed Keawe and Pierre Bowman were watching the aftermath of the tsunami when they saw some Laupahoehoe children going by offshore, clinging to a roof that was riding the Kuroshio Current, heading for certain death in the Central Pacific. They jumped into the water on surfboards, paddled out through the chaotic post-tsunami waves and currents, and brought eleven children ashore. But most of the children were lost.

The tsunami killed 159 people and destroyed the Hilo waterfront.

I grew up with a strong message oft repeated: when a tsunami strikes and the water recedes, you must run as fast as you can for high ground. We never forgot the children of Laupahoehoe.

On May 22, 1960, a 9.5 earthquake in Chile launched a huge tsunami that again destroyed the Hilo waterfront and killed 61 people, many of who were spectators drawn to the ocean and surprised by the size and speed of the wave, which went over the top of the bridge on which they were standing. Humans cannot run 35 miles per hour.

When my father went up in a small plane a day later to view the aftermath, he saw large mats of vegetation, one with a goat on it, far out to sea, large sharks circling, and a human corpse floating on the surface.

After that experience, Hilo converted its waterfront from businesses and stores to parks and sport fields.

I saw a tsunami launched by an 8.6 earthquake in the Aleutians on March 9, 1957, on the North Kohala Coast at Kapanaia, a bay with a narrow entrance facing the sea. First the bay drained dry, to a depth of about 30 feet, leaving a huge wall of water at the entrance. Then the sea came in as a rapid, potent, lasting surge that pushed the level of the bay 35 feet above high tide and rushed half a mile up the stream that drained into the bay. When the water withdrew, it pulled huge rocks with it, rocks that had withstood the heaviest floods of decades, rocks whose bouncing, bounding turbulence no swimmer could conceivably survive.

It was a relatively small tsunami.

Natural catastrophes have often changed the course of human history. The explosion of Santorini circa 1600 B.C. launched a tsunami between 80 and 150 feet high onto the north shore of Crete. It appears to have contributed to the collapse of the Minoan civilization. Major earthquakes in China were interpreted as signals that the government had lost the Mandate of Heaven and used to justify regime change. The carnage from the Lisbon earthquake in 1755 turned Voltaire from a skeptical believer to a convinced atheist, shaping the Enlightenment. An earthquake in Valparaiso that lifted the harbor by about 50 feet shortly before Darwin arrived on the Beagle helped him to accept Lyell’s geological ideas that helped frame his theory of evolution.

Such historical catastrophes are much smaller than those of the distant past. The meteorite impact 65 million years ago in the Yucatan launched worldwide tsunamis more than a kilometer high. Gigantic Miocene eruptions in the Cascades deposited meters of volcanic ash in Nebraska still laden with fossils of the animals that died. Many more could be mentioned.

Humans and their nations, their histories, their hopes and their dreams, are small and young. Nature is very big and very old. Some natural catastrophes are so large that nothing that we can do will protect us. They have no meaning. They do not happen because we did anything wrong or anything right. They just happen. And if a nearby supernova turned us into plasma, and we re-evolved consciousness, which might take five or 10 billion years, we would probably at first reconstruct a history like the one we produced this time around, with ourselves at the center. It would not be long before the catastrophes of a dynamic planet would again teach us better.

Stephen Stearns is a 1967 graduate of Branford College and the Edward P. Bass Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.


  • JE ’11

    This was fascinating and timely. One of the best YDN editorials I’ve seen in a while, thanks.

  • PC ’11

    Insightful indeed. The human condition knows not what nature brings.