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Friday, 30th May 2008

Life - Nature - Earthquake

On 24 May, the young Black-eared Kite in the Observatory's wood flew off from the nest for the first time. Under the watchful eyes of its parents, it flew short flights checking the nearby neighbourhood. In the last few days, it still returned to the nest from time to time. But I am sure that very soon it would soar high and go to faraway places, becoming part of the everlasting Life on Earth.

Life is like an ever-flowing river. Numerous rivers join hands to form the wide oceans. Sea-water evaporates to become water vapour, eventually turning into cloud, rain or snow, and then returning to the ground and nourishing the rivers. At river estuaries, rivers "die" while the oceans are "born". On the other hand, rain marks the "death" of clouds but also the "birth" of rivers. In the great cycle of life and death, there is no way to tell where the start and the end are.

The 12 May Earthquake drew our attention to the "death" aspect of Nature. But we must carefully maintain a balanced mind, avoiding being overloaded with sadness. After the earthquake, we saw the survivors showing great dignity, the rescuers working hard to save lives, and people all over the world including Hong Kong donating generously. It is clear that the human race is born determined to live and ready to help one another. This is a good reflection of the other aspect of Nature, that of "life". I hope that we all carefully preserve our caring attitude towards fellow human beings and let it prevail in our daily life.

On the subject of earthquake, I would like to talk about tectonic plates. The fundamental cause of the Sichuan earthquake was the collision between the Indian Plate and the Eurasian Plate. When energy accumulates beyond certain threshold values, earthquakes occur and the energy is released to become tremors on the Earth's surface. Where the tremors hit population centres, many get killed or hurt in collapsed houses. In this sense, the collision of tectonic plates is "evil".

But the same collision was responsible for the uplifting of the Tibetan Plateau and the formation of the Himalayan mountain range. When warm moist air from the Indian Ocean goes north and runs into this blockage, it turns eastward to become the south-west monsoon in summer. The monsoon brings water vapour to southern China, which therefore escapes the fate of becoming a desert (our latitude is the same as deserts in Arabia and the Sahara). For the same reason, the Chang Jiang (Yangtse River) and Huang He (Yellow River) watersheds have been blessed with sufficient rain to support agriculture and civilization, and thus the growth of the Chinese race. From this perspective, the collision of the tectonic plates is a "benevolent" event.

Nature is always at the same time the source of life and the cause of death. There is indeed no point in labelling it as benevolent or evil from only the point of view of human beings. As a part of Nature, we should gladly share this unique opportunity of being alive with the diverse species on Earth. We should also respectfully recognize the capability of Nature to kill, which would require us to understand the laws of Nature through science and then take actions to stay out of harm's way.

Taking earthquakes as an example, since we cannot predict exactly when and where earthquakes will occur, we are left with two options. One is to build houses strong enough to stand earthquakes indicated by historical records and the data from modern monitoring equipment. The other is to stop people settling in earthquake-prone areas. The common theme between the two approaches is that we act in a way recognizing the forces of Nature. To live as part of Nature, there is perhaps no other better way.

CY Lam

Last revision date: <17 Jan 2013>