Saturday, October 22, 2005

On a wing and a scare

Bird flu is once again the topic of the week, so much so that even The Economist felt it necessary to weigh in with a big overview. I put together a long piece in the science section, with contributions from quite a few staff and foreign correspondents. Apart from the broad science overview, it also contains interesting material on pandemic economics and how businesses are preparing. The package made the cover in Asia (see picture right).

In a flap
Oct 20th 2005
From The Economist print edition
Alarm over bird flu has focused attention on preparing for a human version

HOWEVER much fear there is over bird flu spreading in Asia and Europe, at present the disease tends to make birds sick and not humans. This may change, and some countries are preparing for a pandemic of human influenza. This is wise, given the huge costs of having a significant fraction of the workforce off sick or nursing relatives. But the best way of preventing a human pandemic might be to monitor and limit the spread of bird flu...

I also worked on story coverage in our daily website, Global Agenda.

The spreading bird-flu menace reaches Europe

Oct 20th 2005
From The Economist Global Agenda
European countries are taking emergency measures to contain the spread of a deadly strain of bird flu—which has already led to the deaths of millions of birds and over 60 people in Asia—after its arrival in Russia, Romania, Turkey and possibly Greece. The disease is a serious threat to the world’s sizeable poultry industry but its spread round the globe also increases the chances of it mutating into a form that causes a human pandemic

Finally, we had an opinion piece in the leader section. This was mostly the work of more senior staff.

On a wing and a scare (subscription only)
Oct 20th 2005
Preparing for an influenza pandemic makes sense. Panic doesn't

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Earthquake scientist back in the Andaman Islands

Officialdom moves far more slowly than the media. That is unfortunate because after hanging around in New Dehli for three days Dr Roger Bilham, geophyiscist, decided last Saturday to head back to the Andaman Islands where his services were wanted.

Sadly, thanks to the publicity surrounding the case, Dr Bilham could probably have had a visa many times over for his post-earthquake studies in northern Pakistan. What is most interesting about the case is that it illustrates that science is widely viewed as something abstract and irrelevant to everyday life. What possible use could a geophysicist be? And its not just stressed out Pakistani visa officials in New Dehli that think that the aftermath of a disaster is "not a time for intellectual pursuits".

Is this just fear that scientists might get in the way in the face of a disaster? Or is science failing to convince the world that it has something to offer at times like these, that there might be something important we could learn? Because the time immediately after an earthquake, is also the time preceeding the next. Especially in this part of the world. A lost opportunity, sadly.

Anyway, while I was trying to whip up publicity for this I recorded a commentary on NPR. By the time it was broadcast, Dr Andaman was backin Port Blair. Listen.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Pakistan refuses a visa to earthquake scientist

One of the world’s leading experts on Himalayan earthquakes has been refused a visa for entry into Pakistan. Dr Roger Bilham, of the University of Colorado in the US, had been working in the Andaman islands when the powerful magnitude 7.6 quake struck near Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistani-administered Kashmir.

When he heard the news, Dr Bilham set out on the 1,500 mile journey to Pakistan in the hope of gathering valuable geophysical data in the aftermath of the quake. However visa officials in New Delhi told him that scientists would not be allowed in the country because this was not a time for “intellectual activities”.

This is despite the fact that Pakistani Interior Ministry announced earlier this week that the country would be visa-free for at least a week in order to facilitate foreign entry for “all flying into Pakistan…. to join hands with us in our moment of distress”.

For years, Dr Bilham and colleagues at the University of Colorado in the United States have warned that the Himalayan region is long overdue a large quake. Unfortunately it appears that the Kashmir quake released only a tenth of the energy that is stored—so more earthquakes are expected in the region. Dr Bilham’s work in the journal Science in 2001, suggested that at least two magnitude 8 quakes threaten the Himalayas and its rapidly growing population.

Dr Bilham is currently collaborating with scientists in Pakistan, at the University of Peshawar’s Centre for Geological Excellence. He had been hoping to join them in order to find out what the recent quake might mean for future quakes, both here and in the Himalayas more broadly.

Speaking from New Delhi, Dr Bilham said that in the coming days cracks in the ground would be lost in the rains, and the location and amount of afterslip would tell him a great deal about the properties of the earthquake rupture zone.

In addition, he was worried that over the next few weeks some of these natural features might be bulldozed out of existence. While some of the most important parts of the surface displacement can be measured after a delay of a few weeks—large afterslips may lead to a misinterpretation of these effects.

Reacting to the decision, Dr Bilham said, “Though understandable in the present crisis, this will impair our potential knowledge of future earthquakes in the Himalaya. Specifically it will eliminate possibilities for determining immediate afterslip, and may result in the loss of subtle surface features that occurred during this rare Himalayan earthquake.” In other words, time is of the essence.

Although Dr Bilham was told that other scientists would not be allowed in, structural engineers from around the world also want to visit the region as soon as possible to find out more about how buildings in Kashmir failed in the quake. This evidence will need to be gathered before construction teams move in.

Currently a team of engineers from the UK Earthquake Engineering Field Investigation Team, is pulling together a group that hopes to visit Kashmir to find out how buildings performed and collect geological and seismographic data. The EEFIT team usually tries to visit earthquakes within 10 days of an earthquake.

While there is no suggestion that this is anything more than a random decision made by overwhelmed local officials, Dr Bilham has had a long and troubled history of access to this region that has hampered his work on Himalayan seismology.

This is particularly troubling given that the Himalayas contains a network of underground faults that are unmapped and poorly monitored by seismic instruments. There is also a rapidly expanding population in this earthquake-prone region.

Five years before the earthquake in Bhuj, in India’s Gujarat state, he was refused permission to travel to the border region by the Indian authorities. “I couldn’t get there,” he says. Two years before the Andaman Island quake, when he was working on another scientific article, he was refused permission to travel there.

“Kashmir is yet another region where you can’t do any research, India and Pakistan are very reluctant to let anyone close to that part of the world,” he added. Nepal too, has proven problematic until recently. Only Bhutan has proven helpful. The King, says Dr Bilham, has taken a personal interest in allowing his research.

Unfortunately, while geophysics may know no boundaries, politicians do and this has presented difficulties for outside scientists wanting to better understand Himalayan seismology. India, Bangladesh and Pakistan comprise almost precisely what geologists call a tectonic plate. The Indian plate is moving northwards at about 5cm a year, a force that also generates the Himalayas. The movement of the Indian plate also caused the
Sumatra-Andaman earthquake earlier this year.

If Dr Bilham cannot get a visa in the next day he will return to the Andaman Islands where he is helping to build the first ever “tilt meter” in India.

“It’s a 300m long water pipe that will tell us whether the Andamans are continuing to tilt and flood the eastern coast,” he said. This will help in deciding how best to reconstruct the harbour of Port Blair.

Similarly, Pakistan is likely to need help in finding the safest places to rebuild in Kashmir. For that, the world’s leading geophysicist might come in handy.

Update-17th October
Roger Bilham left Delhi over the weekend for Port Blair in the Andaman Islands. It is possible he will attempt to return to Pakistan in a few weeks.

Further links:
1. Preparing for the unknowable, Oct 13th 2005, The Economist,
Why the Kashmir earthquake happened and what might be done
2. Seismologist keen to get into Pakistan faces delays, Nature.
3. US Geological Survey--Earthquake information about Pakistan.
4. Amateur Seismic Centre--Pakistan Earthquake and guide to great earthquakes in Asia. And further information about seismicity of Pakistan.
5. Dr Bilham's website with links to further information on the Kashmir quake

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Pakistan earthquake--big one still to come

On 8th October at 3.50am UTC, a magnitude 7.6 earthquake hit northern Pakistan. Over the following day, a series of large aftershocks were recorded by the US Geological Survey. The quake epicentre is just between India and, in Kashmir. This is in the Pir Panjal Mountains near the border town of Muzaffarabad. It is 70-odd miles north of Islamabad.

In the early phase of any disaster like this, the predicted numbers of casualties can fluctuate wildly. But it has been clear since yesterday midday that this would be serious. There were reports that whole villages had been wiped out, and that large buildings had collapsed in cities. We also know that the Gujarat earthquake in India in 2001 (which was only slightly smaller in magnitude) killed 14,000 people in the final reckoning.

Scientists have said for years that earthquakes were overdue in this region. Sadly, they can't say exactly where and when they will hit. India is moving into Asia at a steady rate (about 1mm a week), and as this accumulated energy builds up it has to be released. Thus earthquakes happen at a fairly steady rate, causing earthquakes across the subcontinent... see map. And in an interview after the quake, Dr Roger Bilham of the University of Colorado warned that the quake has not been strong enough for the pent up stress to be relieved. The big one, then, is still to come. In fact, given the rapid urbanisation in India, and poor housing, geologists have been warning that the magnitude 8 earthquake expected in the next decade is likely to kill 1m people (see reference to Roger Bilham).

What everyone will start remembering soon is that earthquakes don't kill people--buildings do. In Bhuj, Gujarat, there were building codes but these were ignored. The same is likely to be true on both sides of the border this time round, despite efforts made by the Indian government made in the wake of the last disaster. Of course, both of these are poor countries, but it is going to be hard for state authorities to justify not enforcing building regulations in schools and government buildings.

More information
1. US Geological Survey--Earthquake information about Pakistan.
2. Amateur Seismic Centre--Pakistan Earthquake and guide to great earthquakes in Asia. And further information about seismicity of Pakistan.
3. Historical Himalayan Earthquakes--from the website of geologist Roger Bilham.
4. Roger Bilham, University of Colorado--a personal website by this university academic with much regional information about earthquakes as well as links to articles about the risk of global urban earthquakes, and an article about historic and future earthquakes in India.
5. For up-to-date reports on casualities visit India's disaster management ministry.

Friday, October 07, 2005

The 1918 flu virus is reborn

Scientists in Atlanta have recreated the 1918 flu virus that wiped out an estimated 50m people. The researchers say that they need to find out what made it so dangerous, in order to prepare for the next influenza pandemic.

They have come to one interesting conclusion already, that the 1918 virus was an avian flu virus that jumped into humans--rather than a human virus that acquired a few genes from an avian flu. Obviously this is not good news given the outbreak of bird flu in Asia, but the researchers say that the bird flu virus has not picked up enough of the mutations it would need to jump into humans--yet.

Unhappy rebirthday, Oct 6th 2005, Scientists have recreated the 1918 flu virus in order to reveal its secrets. The Economist.

And listen:
On the 4th October 2005, scientists and government representatives briefed the world’s media about the recreation of the 1918 flu virus. They revealed that since August of this year, the virus has been contained at the Centres for Disease Control in Atlanta, where researchers have been trying to understand what made the virus so dangerous. Listen to the briefing.

Further reading
Influenza is very much the topic of the day. To keep up with this story, there are a number of blogs keeping a close eye on bird flu epidemic in Asia, and the policy machinations with regards to flu preparedness.

Bird Flu Today--news blog. Excellent source of news from around the world on this topic.

Effect Measure--a blog about science and policy in public health, focused on bird flu and the threat of pandemic influenza. At the moment there is discussion of the President's leaked flu action plan.

Avian Flu, what we need to know--a news blog.

Bird flu Updates--a news and opinion blog.

Also this week in the Economist:
Racing rockets, Oct 6th 2005. (subscription required)
Green seafood arrives, Oct 6th 2005. (subscription required). Two British fisheries are told they are eco-friendly.