Humboldtians in Focus

Man of the Year

By Georg Scholl

How Estonian mathematician Tarmo Soomere became a popular hero in his country.

The story will strike you familiar from Hollywood films such as "Jaws". A scientist anticipating disaster attempts to warn the public of the danger lurking in the water. But nobody will believe him, and fate takes its course.

The story of Estonian scientist Tarmo Soomere doesn't take place on a bathing beach in California. Rather, the setting is the Baltic Sea. Neither does the threat come from a man-eating shark but a storm tide with waves averaging seven metres in height. Soomere and his colleagues monitor a combination of unusual weather situations, wind directions and marine currents. They enter the parameters into their models and compute the tide. When the researchers are sure that disaster is looming, they inform the authorities. But the latter dismiss their warnings as exaggerations. The difference to the cinema is that Soomere's story isn't a film script but reality.

Soomere forecast the flood disaster and made it to the front pages of Estonian newspapers
Soomere forecast the flood
disaster and made it to
the front pages of Estonian
newspapers.
Foto: privat

The storm that struck the western coastline of Estonia during the night of the 8th January last year was one of the worst for decades. Several harbours were destroyed, offshore islands were devastated, and the inhabitants of the coastal districts spent the night from Saturday to Sunday marooned in their houses, in which several metres of icy Baltic seawater stood for hours. But the population had made preparations. Radio and television broadcasts had been informing them about the storm tide the coming night since Saturday morning and requesting them to stay in their houses and equip themselves with torches, blankets and drinking water. Soomere, who appeared in several interviews on this day, had succeeded in getting his warnings into the media. Apart from the journalists, it was only a military friend of his working for the coastguard who took his warning seriously and evacuated the lifeboats from the threatened harbours. Thus, the storm tide, which otherwise would probably have claimed numerous lives, only actually did material damage in the region prepared for the disaster. At the time, the researcher, who works at Tallinn Technical University, became something of a popular hero in Estonia. He was named Man of the Year by the country's leading daily newspaper, "Postimees".

Soomere, who has also done research at German universities as fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, is working together with colleagues in an international research network on a storm early warning system for the Baltic Sea. The exact forecast of last year's storm tide was a result of this cooperation. "I didn't compute the forecast myself but only disseminated and explained it," the mathematician stresses. This is precisely the feat that scientists in cinema films always fail to accomplish. In the meantime, work has started on the establishment of an official maritime early warning system in Estonia that is supposed to provide the population with reliable warnings in future. Nevertheless, the authorities have been hesitant to cooperate with the research network around Soomere and his colleagues. Media attention, which proved so useful in preventing a disaster, appears to have created hurdles, Soomere believes. Nevertheless, he is certain that there will be no repetition of this story, "Nobody will be able to afford not listening to the scientists' advice a second time."


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