Bay of Bengal Faces Major Tsunami Threat, Study Says

September 5, 2007

Millions of people along the coasts of Myanmar (Burma), Bangladesh, and India may be at risk of suffering a catastrophic tsunami-generating earthquake, according to a new study.

The northern Bay of Bengal could be pummeled by a temblor as massive as the one that sent devastating tsunamis into Indonesia and other Indian Ocean countries in December 2004, the research suggests. (See full Indian Ocean tsunami coverage.)

Previous research had raised little concern about potential earthquakes in the northern part of the bay, which lies between India and the Malay Peninsula (see a map of the Bay of Bengal).

But Phil Cummins, a senior seismologist at Geoscience Australia in Canberra, evaluated historical accounts of seismic events, including records of a major quake in the region in 1762.

When combined with recent observations of stress accumulation in the region, the data suggest that a magnitude 8.8 earthquake could occur within 200 years.

Cummins presents his results in tomorrow's issue of the journal Nature.

Outside experts said the findings should be taken seriously and should spur further studies of the quake and tsunami potential in the area—home to more than 60 million people. (Get tsunami facts.)

Historical Threat

Earthquakes generally occur along plate boundaries—places where pieces of Earth's crust slide past each other in fits and starts.

The location of the plate boundary in the northern Bay of Bengal is not well understood, according to experts who work in the region.

Current maps of the tectonic plates in the bay show the boundary following a trench that extends northward from India's Andaman Islands and through Myanmar (see a map of the region).

But historical accounts of the 1762 earthquake come from the southern and northern extremes of Myanmar's Arakan coast, along the northwestern edge of the country where it borders Bangladesh.

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