Preparing for Tsunamis…in Switzerland?


Lake Geneva, Switzerland

Estimated 563 AD Tsunami Progression

When you hear “tsunami”, you probably think back to the 2004 Sri Lankan disaster, or more recently, the Japanese earthquake and subsequent catastrophic waves. Coastal cities near areas of intense seismic activity have been the poster-children for tsunami disasters–which is why I was surprised when I saw this article discussing how Swiss officials are now preparing for a tsunami-related disaster. Switzerland, best known for its watches, alpine scenery, and neutrality is a completely landlocked country, which poses the question of why officials in Lucerne are now factoring tsunami-preparedness into their emergency plans. The areas in and around Lake Lucerne and Lake Geneva, large lakes amongst the Swiss alps, as well as others such as the more local Lake Tahoe in California, have occasional seismic activity given the mountainous geography around them, and have actually had a (scattered) history of Alpine tsunamis. Scientists from the University of Geneva have found compelling evidence suggesting that in the year 563 AD, a massive rockfall on the opposing side of Lake Geneva triggered a enormous wave that destroyed the communities living along the shore, and stretched all the way to the city of Geneva, resulting in multiple casualties. They describe present day Geneva being susceptible to tsunamis given the high water levels relative to the city’s elevation and it’s position on the lake itself, the shape of which greatly amplifies the destructive power of large waves. Given the small number of reported cases of destructive alpine tsunamis in recent human memory, the chances of one occurring sometime soon is low, especially one that would affect a largely populated area. So the question has to be asked. Should we put money and resources towards preparing for a disaster that, if it does occur, will be catastrophic but has a very small likelihood of happening? Or should those resources go towards solving other societal problems such as hunger and poverty that clearly result in more deaths per year than obscure alpine tsunamis?

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