Malaysia's Sabah on tsunami watch in wake of quakes in Indonesia, Philippines

Indonesian search and rescue personnel walk near the damaged Anutapura hospital in Palu, on Oct 11, 2018.

PETALING JAYA - In the wake of dozens of tremors in southern Philippines and the Indonesian islands over the past two weeks, the Malaysian Meteorological Department (MetMalaysia) has put Sabah on a tsunami watch.

The department is on alert particularly for earthquake activities in Mindanao and Sulawesi, closely observing the Celebes and Sulu Sea for a possible tsunami that could sweep Sabah's coastline with little or no warning.

A MetMalaysia official told The Star that in the past two weeks, there were at least 24 earthquakes in Indonesia's Sulawesi and Lesser Sunda Islands and the Philippines' Mindanao island, with the magnitude ranging between 4.4 and 6.0 on the Richter scale.

"We are worried that an earthquake could take place in the middle of the sea, resulting in a tsunami which could engulf Sabah's northern or easterly coast towns," the official said.

At 1.30am on Thursday (Oct 11), a 1.2-magnitude earthquake struck Sabah. The quake was detected at a depth of 9km, with its epicentre located 13km north-east of Ranau.

The official said MetMalaysia was working closely with Philippine and Indonesian agencies to monitor seismic movements in the region around the clock.

"If we suspect any tsunami activity, we will issue immediate public warnings to alert residents of the possible danger and activate other emergency protocols," the official said.

Scores killed in Indonesia quake, tsunami

  • Earthquake survivors in Palu, Central Sulawesi, crowd Mutiara Sis Al Jufri Airport in Palu in a desperate attempt to leave the devastated area on Monday.
  • A combination of satellite images shows Palu, Indonesia on September 22, 2018 (L) and on October 1, 2018.
  • A combination of satellite images shows Palu, Indonesia on September 22, 2018 (L) and on October 1, 2018.
  • In the wake of mass destruction caused by a 7.4-magnitude earthquake and the subsequent tsunami, survivors in Palu and Donggala in Central Sulawesi have been scrambling to salvage food supplies and other items, as aid from the central government began to trickle into the region.
  • An aerial view of an area devestated by an earthquake in Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia October 1, 2018 in this photo taken by Antara Foto.
  • Local residents affected by the earthquake and tsunami retrieve gasoline at a gas station in Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia.
  • This handout from Indonesia's National Agency for Disaster Management (BNPB) taken on September 29, 2018 shows an aerial view of Palu, Indonesia's Central Sulawesi, after an earthquake and tsunami hit the area on September 28.
  • Scores of people were killed when a powerful quake and tsunami struck central Indonesia, an AFP photographer at the scene said on Saturday (Sept 29), as rescuers scrambled to reach the stricken region.
  • Photographs from Palu, home to around 350,000 on the coast of Sulawesi island, showed partially covered bodies on the ground near the shore, the morning after tsunami waves as high as 1.5 metres slammed into the city.
  • A satellite image shows Palu, Indonesia on October 1, 2018.
  • The tsunami was triggered by a strong quake that brought down several buildings and sent locals fleeing their homes for higher ground as a churning wall of water crashed into Palu.
  • People living hundreds of kilometres from the epicentre reported feeling the massive shake, hours after a smaller jolt killed at least one person in the same part of the South-east Asian archipelago.
  • The quake hit just off central Sulawesi at a depth of 10 kilometres just before 6pm local time, the US Geological Survey said. Such shallow quakes tend to be more destructive.
  • Search and rescue teams have been dispatched to hard-hit areas
  • A 10-storey hotel in Palu in Indonesia's Central Sulawesi collapsed following a strong earthquake in the area.
  • As shattered survivors scoured make-shift morgues for loved ones, and authorities struggled to dig out the living or assess the scale of the devastation beyond the city of Palu, grim warnings came that the eventual toll could reach thousands.
  • Rescuers on Sulawesi island raced against the clock and a lack of equipment to save those still trapped in the rubble, with up to 60 people feared to be underneath one Palu hotel alone.
  • Others have centred their search around open-air morgues, where the dead lay in the baking sun - waiting to be claimed, waiting to be named.
  • Still, as dire as the situation in Palu was, it was at least clear. In outlying areas, the fate of thousands is still unknown.
  • Desperate survivors, now facing a third straight night sleeping outdoors, turned to looting shops for basics like food, water and fuel as police looked on, unwilling or unable to intervene.

Aside from working closely with the Indonesian and Philippine meteorological departments, MetMalaysia will also monitor the tidal gauge placed around Sabah's coast.

Although Sabah is not seated within the Ring of Fire, a belt of seismic activity running around the basin of the Pacific Ocean, it is close enough to the edge of these fault lines and is susceptible to the compression forces from the interaction of three main tectonic plates.

Sabah is actually located on the south-eastern Eurasian Plate which is bordered by the Philippine Plate and the Pacific Plate.

The Philippine Plate and Pacific Plate are moving westwards, colliding with the Eurasian Plate, at the speed of 10cm a year.

The southern part of the Australian Plate is also inching northwards at 7cm per year. It is the most active and unstable plate.

Although Sabah is located 1,000km away from the collision of these plates, it still can feel the compression force.

In June 2015, Ranau was struck by a 6.0-magnitude earthquake.

Eighteen people, including nine Singaporeans, were killed when they were struck by falling rocks on Mount Kinabalu. Some 137 climbers were stranded on the mountain but were later rescued.

The quake struck at a depth of 10km, with its epicentre located 19km from Ranau town and 54km from Kota Kinabalu.

Tremors were also felt on Sabah's coast and as far in as Bandar Seri Begawan in Brunei and Kudat, 190km north of Kota Kinabalu.

In 1966, Ranau was hit by a 5.3- magnitude earthquake, and another 5.2-magnitude tremor in 1991.

On Sept 28, Palu and Donggala, both coastal towns in Sulawesi, were hit by a powerful 7.5-magnitude earthquake, resulting in a tsunami.

The death toll from this earthquake stands at more than 2,000, with 680 people officially still missing.

However, it is feared there could be as many as 5,000 people still buried in the rubble after large swathes of Palu were swept by waves.

The United Nations estimates that some 80,000 people have been displaced by the disaster, with many now living in tents outside their destroyed homes.

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