Jonathan Major, Jamie Robinson and Dr. Ron Harris, Geological Sciences
Indonesia is the fourth largest country in the world by population and encompasses thousands of islands. The tropical climate, fertile soil, and vast natural resources continue to fuel rapid population and economic growth. Much of the natural abundance of Indonesia can be attributed to its active and complex geology. Hundreds of volcanoes build, shape, and destroy islands while powerful earthquakes rock the land and sometimes generate devastating tsunamis. The Great Sumatra-Andaman earthquake and tsunami of 2004 is a sobering reminder of the region’s destructive potential. This event was not a surprise to a handful of researchers like Dr. Ron Harris who studied over 300 years of seismic history for that part of the country. The seismic history of eastern Indonesia before 1900, however, was practically unknown to anyone living until we began our research.
The Portuguese and later the Dutch began colonizing the Indonesian archipelago in the 1500s and 1600s respectively. They came to trade for spices and soon built forts and trading posts to enforce monopolies. Although the Dutch often treated the locals poorly, they kept good records that noted the frequent earthquakes and tsunamis. Arthur Wichmann, a Dutch geologist, compiled accounts of these into a catalog Die erdbeben des Indischen Archipels (The Earthqakes of the Indian Archipelago) a century ago. This catalog is written in a mix of German, Dutch, French, and English, but has been known and used by only a few. Our research has been to translate the records to English and extract the information to extend the known earthquake and tsunami history for eastern Indonesia back to 1600. By understanding events that have happened in the past, we can now better evaluate the potential for large and destructive earthquakes and tsunamis today and in the future.
In Fall 2008, Dr. Harris, Jon, and Jon’s wife Marti, who speaks Dutch and helped with the project, travelled to Indonesia. The primary purpose of the trip was to conduct field research for Jon’s MS thesis project, but also gave an excellent opportunity to further the earthquake and tsunami research. Several of the places mentioned in the Dutch records were located and visited. Additionally, we were able to talk to local people and leaders about geologic hazards.
Our visit to Saparua Island in eastern Indonesia demonstrates the success and importance of our work. Stenley’s family (a member of our team) has lived on the island for centuries. They took us around the island and showed us the two Dutch forts that remain. According to our earthquake records, the older one of the forts, Fort Hollandia, was heavily damaged due to an earthquake in 1671. From our visit, we learned that construction on the newer fort, Fort Duurstede, began 5 years afterwards. We now think that the new fort was built because of damage to the old fort sustained in the 1671 event and a later earthquake in 1674. Learning from experience, the Dutch built the new one in a better, higher location, with thicker walls. As we talked to the local people, we found they knew nothing about these past earthquakes. Additionally, people on the island have never experienced a particularly destructive earthquake or tsunami, nor do they know that the potential even exists! This situation on Saparua Island is sobering, and similar situations can be found in much of eastern Indonesia.
The state of awareness of geologic hazards is dangerously lacking in most of the country. Indonesians have a strong sense of culture and identity, but their knowledge of history beyond popular historical figures is sparse. We met the director of the seismograph network for the Maluku region to see what is being done. We learned that their records, historical and instrumental, only go back to 1900, and that existing hazard studies and projects don’t use data from before that time. This is a big problem because the last 100 years has been relatively “quiet” (no large earthquakes) in comparison to prior centuries. Thus, the destructive potential of this area may be seriously underestimated.
We are currently in the process of compiling data for publication in order to make our research available for others. This will hopefully encourage collaboration and new study by members of the scientific community. We hope to return to Indonesia to further and finish the work we started. Our goals are to conduct scientific research by surveying and mapping more islands of the Banda Arc and to educate the people there.
This undergraduate mentoring research helped Jon decide to stay at BYU for a Master’s degree. This allowed him to continue this research and helped to start a related MS thesis project in Indonesia. Jamie’s research experience and degree earned from BYU helped her get a full-time job as a geologist at Raser Technologies.
This has been a very meaningful project for all involved. Not everything has gone exactly as planned, but the project will continue to go forward in the coming months. Our advisor, department, and college have all been very supportive.
The Earthquake History of Eastern Indonesia presented at BYU Spring Research Conference, 2008. Earthquake and Tsunami History and Hazards of Eastern Indonesia (poster) at the American Geophysical Union’s (AGU) Annual Meeting, Dec. 2008, San Francisco.
Our research would not be possible without help from many others. Aden Williamsen, Tanner Duncan, Marti (Boyle) Major, Carolyn Dedari, and Sarah Reed (all current or former BYU students) helped with the translation. Dr. Bill McCann, formerly of the Lamont-Doherty Geological Observatory at Columbia University, gave valuable advice. Our field work in Indonesia was aided by Dr. Carolus Prasetyadi from Universitas Pembangunan Nasional “Veteran” (UPN), Jogjakarta, and our field assistants: Prof. Arif (UPN), Stenley (UPN), Helen, Ucu, Emon, and Agus.