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Pamela Rasmussen: A closer look at Indonesia's quakes

Pamela Rasmussen is an assistant professor in the Department of Integrative Biology in the College of Natural Science and an assistant curator for the MSU Museum. Rasmussen has discovered more birds in Asia than any other person in the world.

The enormous catastrophe caused by earthquakes around Palu, Sulawesi this year captivated and horrified the world, with the official death toll more than 2,100, another 1,000 said to be missing and hundreds of thousands in desperate need.

Indonesia sits atop the “Ring of Fire,” and Sulawesi itself is made up of three different tectonic plates and has several major faults. While earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions are relatively frequent in the region, very few are as powerful and destructive as the Palu quakes. This may well turn out to be the deadliest set of earthquakes in Indonesia in decades.  

A personal anecdote illustrates the casual attitude local people have toward earthquakes in general: on March 14, 2017, I was sitting in a house in Diapati, near Buol, on the western Minahassa Peninsula, preparing to hire porters for a trek along the Ile-Ile gold mine path.

There, I hoped to relocate the rare and mysterious North Sulawesi form of the Hooded Pitta, Pitta sordida forsteni, for which no sound recordings existed. Suddenly, the ground and the whole house started shaking and, just as suddenly, it was over. The family giggled a little, and soon we forgot all about it.

According to volcanodiscovery.com, though Diapati was near the epicenter of this magnitude 5.5 quake, it was just one of seven earthquakes reported across Indonesia that day!

It is difficult to mentally scale up from that innocuous little episode to the shocking loss of life and devastation in the Palu area, which is the main urban hub for Central Sulawesi. A big, rambling city as I knew it on my most recent trip there in 2012, it holds the offices we needed to visit when obtaining the permits needed for fieldwork in Lore Lindu National Park. Permits in hand, we proceeded up the then just-barely-passable road to the national park, which from news reports I gather may still be severed.

One of our field sites along that road is Baku Bakulu, not really a town in 2012, just a cacao plantation with a small kiosk shop, which is where we found a bird we named the Sulawesi Flycatcher, Muscicapa sodhii. One can only hope that our acquaintances and field staff in that area are doing all right.

The Palu quake disaster comes while Indonesia is still recovering from another devastating set of earthquakes in Lombok, Indonesia, which started on July 29 and lasted well into August 2018. Some of these quakes were centered near Sembalun Lawang, which formed my base just three weeks earlier, from July 6-10, while I was searching for and making sound recordings of the Mangrove Whistler, which on Lombok lives high in the mountain forests, not just in mangroves.

This town is just outside the beautiful forest of Rinjani National Park and is at the start of one of the island’s two very popular trekking routes. Hundreds of foreign trekkers and local guides and porters were on the mountain during the first quake and were evacuated; hundreds of casualties were reported.

The vast Indonesian archipelago, with its thousands of islands, is largely a product of vulcanism and other tectonic processes, and thus earthquakes are inevitable. People have been living alongside these natural disasters for millennia, but now with larger human populations and more development the scale of destruction is naturally greater. That doesn’t make it any easier for the people living with loss and deprivation, and our thoughts are with them.