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Ancient Tsunami Lore Could Save Lives

Three years after the devastating tsunami that destroyed coastal communities around the Indian Ocean, the exact death toll remains uncertain. But survivors' tales of similarly massive waves sweeping in from the ocean are passed down by elders in certain communities and may be enough to save lives in the event of another disaster like the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, a researcher says.

The tsunami that struck the coasts of Thailand, India and Indonesia on December 26, 2004 caused very high mortality in the affected regions, with anywhere from 10 to 90 percent of local populations being killed depending on the location.

The region-wide death toll is estimated to have exceeded 200,000.

But a similarly intense tsunami that struck northern Papua New Guinea in 1930 caused a fraction of the deaths compared to the 2004 disaster, with only 0.1 percent to 1 percent of the coastal population being killed.

The key to this lower death toll were stories of tsunamis that had been passed down across the generations to the area residents, said tsunami researcher Simon Day, a visiting professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who has been researching evidence of ancient tsunamis in Papua New Guinea.

"Oral traditions are a very efficient means of tsunami education," Day said. Day presented his findings at a recent meeting of the American Geophysical Union.

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