Central Taiwan Notes: Tsunami Necessary


In light of the PLA’s live-fire exercises around Taiwan, the nation must take civil defense far more seriously than it currently does

  • By Michael Turton / Contributing Journalist

Among Friends around Chenggong Township (成功) in Taitung County, there is a story of a place called Malaulau, ma being a prefix and laulau, meaning “withered”. In fact, it is Chenggong’s old name in Hoklo (more commonly known as Taiwanese): “Malaulau” (麻荖漏), taken from the word Friends.

What does this name refer to? In Friends oral histories, this is where a massive wave hit Chenggong, killing many people. The wave was fairly localized and the Friends communities to the north have no legend of this event. The east coast south of Yilan is well protected from the effects of tsunamis as the coastal shelf drops rapidly and deeply, but Chenggong is one of the places where a tsunami may reach due to the topography of the ocean floor. .


Photo: Michael Turton

Although Japanese scholars who first encountered this tale in the late 1930s attributed it to a 19th century event, Academia Sinica scholar Masataka Ando, ​​who studied tsunamis and Taiwan for decades could not attribute it to a particular event in a 2013 paper that digitally simulated different types of tsunami-generating events. Ando argued that a 19th century event is unlikely simply because the coast was already populated by Han settlers, but there is no record of an earthquake powerful enough to generate such a tsunami.

A more recent work, “The Sedimentological Record of Upper Holocene Tsunami Event in Fengbin, Taiwan”, suggests that Chenggong was affected by the 1771 tsunami which also struck the Japanese islands of Miyako, based on affinities between deposits in Fengbin Township of Hualien County (豐濱) and Miyako.

A later 2017 work, “Investigation of Possible Tsunami Events on the Eastern Coast of Taiwan: Case Studies of Lu-Ye, Changping, and Tulan,” identified evidence of tsunamis striking elsewhere along the eastern coast. Obviously, the depths off our coasts do not perfectly defend Taiwan.

Photo: Michael Turton

Similarly, a 2015 study of coral rocks on Orchid Island (Lanyu, 蘭嶼), “Coral rocks along the coast of Lanyu Island, off southeastern Taiwan, as potential paleosunami records, identified several displaced coral boulders that were likely due to tsunamis.

“The largest boulder on the island, at site 14, has an axis 7.5 m long and an estimated weight of 234 tonnes,” the authors write. “The gigantic size of this rock indicates that it can only be moved by an extremely energetic wave.”

There is a legend on Orchid Island of a mouse who was told to swim to the bottom of the sea and drain the water after the water covered the whole island.

The north coast is also vulnerable to tsunamis. A series of studies exploring the timing of tsunami and super-typhoon deposition in this region have identified at least eight major tsunamis over the past 2,500 years. It seems like every two hundred years or so a major wave hits the area. The most recent, the 1867 tsunami, is well recorded in geological and historical records.

Southern Taiwan too: In 1781, a tsunami flooded Jiateng Port (加藤) and nearby homes in Pingtung County to a depth of about two meters, according to recorded accounts. Simulations show that tsunamis could inundate this area, much of which lies below sea level due to subsidence caused by groundwater extraction.

Most of the threats that can trigger tsunamis, from undersea volcanoes to earthquakes and sea quakes to undersea landslides, exist in Taiwan, along with occasional super-typhoons, so powerful that scientists often can’t tell which is which in the geologic record.

There is a giant landslide scar on Turtle Island (龜山島) off Yilan County which probably caused a giant wave. Imagine what an eruption or landslide there (the smaller volcano of the pair last erupted in 1785) could do to the Yilan floodplain?


Indeed, all of our nuclear power plants are located in areas hit by tsunamis. If you’ve ever vacationed along the east coast, you’ve probably seen the signs for evacuation routes and shelter sites.

More tsunami drills are needed, not just for their own sake, but because tsunami drills could get around the problem of getting people to do civil defense: frame it as natural disaster training. After all, the skills needed to deal with damage and casualties in battle overlap a lot with those needed to deal with natural disasters.

Civil defence, as well as reserve forces such as the territorial militia advocated by certain observers, oblige citizens to experience the idea of ​​war in their bodies. A lot of people don’t want to deal with that. The reader might object that Taiwan’s four-month conscription already does this, but for many men it’s a huge waste of time. They don’t acquire any of the skills, experiences and fears they need.

Taiwan already holds a National Disaster Day on September 21. Usually an exercise is organized, but it is quite superficial. No technique is taught, no management experience acquired, no lesson learned. On this day in 2020, Tainan held an earthquake drill, a good start.

Following the visit of United States House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Chinese live-fire exercises near Taiwan, nothing more fitting than to make September 21 a national day of exercises, with holidays focused on learning practical and useful techniques. to cope with a disaster, people practicing evacuation to shelters (take a moment: does the reader know where the nearest shelter is? Do you know how to get there if buildings have collapsed and that streets are blocked?) and government officials practicing emergency plans. Bring in experts, especially from Ukraine, to create scenarios and teach people how to cope.

As the redoubtable TH Schee, long involved in civil defense activities, noted on Twitter, what the Chinese military exercises have exposed is Taiwan’s severe lack of civil defense preparedness. Cyberattacks from China show how unprepared Taiwan is to operate when our infrastructure is saturated with missile attacks.

Ukraine has committed to civil and territorial defense forces after Russia annexed parts of its south. This month’s tantrum in China gave us a warning. September 21 is just a few weeks away. We need to move on from turning ideas on paper into practical achievements.

Because when the missiles start falling for real, it will be too late.

Notes from Central Taiwan is a column written by longtime resident Michael Turton, providing incisive commentary informed by three decades of living and writing about his adopted country. The opinions expressed here are his own.

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