Why we do what we do – the impact of research

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Sometimes we researchers work as if operating inside a bubble.  Our outlook of the importance of our research questions and the results of our efforts are aimed only at the scientific community or even more myopically within our specific subfields. We can lose sight of how our work might be of interest to the outside world. In geo- and environmental sciences I often presume that our aims are clear to the interested layman. But after having an interesting conversation with a friend, a mathematician, who tried to explain to me what she was working on (something about abstract forms that only exist in mathematical theory she describes and tries to find mathematical proof for – sorry if I got that wrong!) I realized that it is really hard for an outsider, and with that I mean not only non-scientists but also scientists from other fields, to understand what we do and why we are doing this. In the case of my mathematician friend it took me a while to grasp a hint of what she was working on. I must have had the same face my parents make when I try to explain my tsunami research to them. And of course in those conversations the ever present question pops up:  “So what is this good for?”.

So here I go trying to explain to someone else why I sort out microfossils from a pile of sand grains to find tsunamis that happened a few hundred years ago and might maybe happen again sometime in the future. Maybe in 100 years maybe in 500 years, no prediction possible. Great!

In this tsunami research case the outcome and communication path to the greater public was overwhelming. Our little lab in the University of Haifa (Marine Geoarcheology & Micropaleontology Laboratory) has been doing research on paleotsunami events along the Mediterranean coastline of Israel for the past decade. We did not only find sequences of tsunami events but were also able to link them to historical catalogue entries and more importantly to archaeological sites throughout the country that show the imprints and the consequences of those natural disasters by abandonment and reestablishment of the coastal communities. These findings resulted in a tsunami action plan of the Israeli Ministry of Security and Homefront Command. In the spring of 2016 the government ran a national drill involving the National Disaster Response Organization, the Tsunami Response Group, Red Cross, Firefighters and Military.

The drill was kickIMG-20160620-WA0001ed off by an earthquake announcement of M 6.5 in Crete.  Through a well-produced partially pre-filmed, partially live sequence; observers and participants could watch on a megascreen (at least 5x8metres) as the phones went live between the different decision making bodies discussing how to proceed.  Just as the process reaches a decision to await further information, especially any tsunami landfall announcements from Greece or Turkey, a second earthquake announcement arrives. The second earthquake is less ambiguous, coming in as an 8.5 M from the same place. Then, the chain of events led to the decision to give out a tsunami warning and perform evacuation. For this, volunteers were staged on the beaches in Ashdod but also people that just happened to be there found themselves being involved in the evacuation. Which led to probably reality-near scenarios where people didn´t want to leave their tanning spot! The drill drew a lot of attention among international disaster managers and involved many international representatives that attended the drill as consultants and observers. Representatives from the Israel Geological Survey, earthquake and tsunami researchers like Prof. Beverly Goodman (Israel), Prof. Robert Weiss (USA) and Prof. Ahmet Cevdet Yalciner (Turkey) were present as well as representatives from the German BBK (Federal Office of Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance).

The drills were especially important to raise awareness and to get the public to talk about this. We even made it on the Israeli late night show which was probably the best publicity we could ask for! Here a couple of links for the interested: (http://www.timesofisrael.com/emergency-services-drill-tsunami-along-southern-coast/, http://www.jerusalemonline.com/news/in-israel/local/tsunami-drill-along-israels-beaches-20251).  Ten years ago it would have seemed impossible that those little microfossils in the sand would someday become the source of wide public awareness and the implication of such impressive safety measures.

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