Dark Bilious Vapors

But how could I deny that I possess these hands and this body, and withal escape being classed with persons in a state of insanity, whose brains are so disordered and clouded by dark bilious vapors....
--Rene Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy: Meditation I

Home » Archives » December 2004 » Fascinating first person account....

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12/27/2004: Fascinating first person account....

of the tsunami which hit Sri Lanka and (of course) other areas: Swimmer rides surging sea to survive tidal wave (from the WaPo via the St. Louis Post-Dispatch). What's particularly fascinating is that normally, the words "tsunami" or "tidal wave" inspire a mental picture of a wave hundreds of feet tall crashing onto a beach and surging far inland. Mr. Dobbs's account of this one seems eerie in its sedateness:

I was taking my morning swim around the island that my businessman-brother Geoffrey bought on a whim a decade ago and turned into a tropical paradise just 200 yards from one of the world's most beautiful beaches on the Sri Lankan mainland.

I was a quarter way around the island when I heard my brother shouting at me, "Come back! Come back! There's something strange happening with the sea." He was swimming behind me, but closer to the shore.

I couldn't understand what the fuss was about. All seemed peaceful. There was barely a ripple in the sea.

Then I noticed that the water around me was rising, climbing up the rock walls of the island with astonishing speed. The vast circle of golden sand around Weligama Bay was disappearing rapidly, and the water had reached the level of the coastal road fringed with palm trees.

As I swam to shore, my mind was momentarily befuddled by two conflicting impressions: the idyllic blue sky and the rapidly rising waters.

In less than a minute, the water level had risen at least 15 feet - but the sea itself remained calm, barely a wave in sight.

Within minutes, the beach and the area behind it had become an inland sea, rushing over the road and pouring into the flimsy houses on the other side. The speed with which it all happened seemed like a scene from the Bible, a natural phenomenon unlike anything I had experienced before.

As the waters rose at an incredible rate, I half expected to catch sight of Noah's Ark.
Go read the whole thing; it's well worth it.

UPDATE: From an email correspondent, a possible explanation of why the tsunami wasn't more dramatic:
The earthquake imparts a huge amount of energy to the water which would have manifested as a 'long' but not necessarily 'high' wave. On a gradually shelving beach the front hits, lifts a bit, but all the rest of the wave just keeps coming and pushing the water inland - the longer the wave the further it reaches. With a sharply shelving shoreline the pressure builds up quickly and forces the peak higher as in the popular (though not necessarily valid) picture of a tsunami..

Len on 12.27.04 @ 04:20 PM CST


Replies: 2 comments

on Monday, December 27th, 2004 at 10:17 PM CST, Bryan said

Another witness reported that the number of children killed was high because prior to the wave striking, the water was pulled out of harbors and the children were out collecting the grounded fish when the wave came in.

on Monday, December 27th, 2004 at 10:21 PM CST, Len Cleavelin said

Someone on a mail list I'm on (a geologist by profession) said that if she were on the beach and saw the water "draining" away from the beach like that she'd head for high ground immediately. I can see why.....

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