Taiwan Earthquake – December 26, 2006

A sequence of disruptions to communications because of this earthquake closed down business activities for a time in many parts of Asia and North America.

The 2006 Taiwan earthquake of magnitude 7.1 occurred on December 26, 2006, with an epicenter fifteen miles off the southwest coast of Taiwan and fourteen miles deep in the South China Sea. It not only caused casualties and building damages, but also damaged several undersea cables, disrupting telecommunication services in various parts of Asia. It coincided in time with both the second anniversary of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami that devastated the coastal communities across Southeast and South Asia and the third anniversary of the 2003 earthquake that devastated the southern Iranian city of Bam.

News agencies reported collapsed houses in southern Taiwan along with buildings on fire, hotel guests trapped in elevators, and telephones out of operation due to severed lines. Two people were reported killed and forty-two injured. The earthquake was felt all over Taiwan, including the capital city of Taipei, three hundred miles north of the epicenter. Power was lost in 3,000 homes, but service was restored within a day. A nuclear power plant was affected by the severe shaking that followed the earthquake from aftershocks and emergency procedures were put in place immediately to prevent leakage of radiation. Residents in Hong Kong were so alarmed by the impact of the quake that they ran out into the streets in large numbers, fearing the collapse of their apartment buildings. Reaction was similar in Macau except that residents there thought the earthquake had occurred in Macau. In Mainland China the earthquake was felt in the provinces of Guangdong and Fujian but there were no reports of major damage.

Perhaps the coincidence of the earthquake’s timing with the devastating events in Sumatra in 2004 made Taiwanese authorities particularly sensitive to the dangers from tsunamis. A tsunami warning was issued at once, informing Philippine authorities that a ten-foot-high tsunami was heading toward them. No tsunami wave from Taiwan was subsequently recorded anywhere. The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii announced that there was no threat of a region-wide tsunami. The damage that caught everyone’s attention was the disruption of undersea cable connections to many places in Asia. Taiwan’s biggest telecom provider, Chunghwa Telecom Company, reported that it had lost 98 percent of its links with Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and Hong Kong, and added that repairs would take up to three weeks. Japanese operators also reported trouble.

Taiwan lies in one of the most earthquake-prone regions of the world. As recently as September 21, 1999 another earthquake measuring 7.6 on the Richter Scale struck it and killed more than 2,000 people in northern and central regions. Both the initial quake and the first aftershock from the 2006 quake were felt throughout Taiwan. A reporter’s hotel room swayed in Taipei and the building creaked for fifteen seconds. Many streets in the city were cracked and a major bridge was damaged. Several fires broke out, apparently caused by downed electric power lines. Many buildings in Taipei swayed and knocked objects off the shelves.

In several southern cities power was cut off, hindering reports of damage from residents. At one hotel the shaking was so violent that many guests panicked and ran out of their rooms and into the streets. Taiwanese television stations showed rescuers using power equipment to dig through the remains of an offshore aging beach resort that had collapsed and trapped eight inside it. The main story, however, remained the destruction of Asia-wide communications and the associated reality that since there were only a limited number of cable repair ships, it would take at least weeks to fish up the undersea cables and repair them.

China Telecommunications Group said its connections with the United States and Europe had been broken. Internet connections had been cut off, and phone links and dedicated business lines had also been cut. As a result, Chinese access services were reduced for some days to the slow pace of land telephone lines and currency trading was stopped. China and South Korea lost their connections with the rest of the world because of this earthquake and many people in North America took note, at the time, of the sudden drop in the numbers of spam messages that were arriving. While spam messages come to North America from all over the world it became clear that a big part of that world of unwelcome communications comes from China and South Korea. One large network in North America saw its mail from Korea drop by 90 percent and from China by 99 percent.

This earthquake became a reminder to the world of the fragility of telecom cables. The destruction of distance that is attributed to the Internet may still be more of a dream than a reality. So widespread was the loss of communications with the rest of the world on the part of Asian countries due to this one earthquake that the demand quickly arose for alternative connections. With such large expanses of water separating countries around the Pacific Rim, the region will need to come up with more innovative and robust backup plans. After the tsunami of December 26, 2004, satellite communication was the solid backup for voice communication. But this service might be too small to handle high-speed Internet traffic. In the process we can learn more about the Internet when it’s not working than when it is.

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