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    The Upside To An 8.9 Earthquake: It Happened In Japan
    By Hank Campbell | March 12th 2011 04:10 PM | 27 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    The 8.9 magnitude earthquake off the coast of Japan was a devastating event and did unknown amounts of damage.    There is risk of fire, water shortages, power outages and radiation leaks, not to mention 1,000 dead.   (To separate mass media hype from fact, see Patrick Lockerby's comprehensive and frequently updated Japan's Nuclear Emergency - The Straight Goods and also Japan Quake - Media Up To Mischief)

    In the context of all that it may seem cavalier to state that if it has to happen, at least it happened in Japan, but that's the case; it is impossible to gauge how many lives were saved because it happened there and they can be a model in the future for any country at risk for this kind of earthquake, including the U.S.

    Compare 1,000 dead in Japan Friday to the 9.1 earthquake (and also a resulting tsunami) that hit the Pacific in 2004.   Death toll then: 400,000.   In that light, the events in Japan are a testament to preparedness.   The Japanese are no strangers to earthquakes and water disasters but it still takes more than awareness, it takes science and planning and money to keep disasters from wiping out tens or hundreds of thousands of people.

    Japan earthquake

    First, what does that 8.9 magnitude earthquake really mean?   The Richter Scale, whose numbers are commonly associated with earthquakes, was developed in 1935 by two gentlemen from Caltech, inspired by a similar scale, apparent magnitude, in astronomy.    They used seismograms and established that a magnitude 0 event would an earthquake that would show a horizontal displacement of 0.00004 inches on a seismograph 100 km from the earthquake epicenter.  

    The actual Richter scale uses the logarithm of the amplitude of waves so each whole number increase in magnitude is a 10X increase in measured amplitude; in energy terms, a whole number increase is an increase of about 31X the amount of energy released.

    There are 1,000 earthquakes each day below 3 but earthquakes like occurred recently happen rarely.   

    To put that 8.9 in context, the atomic bomb that hit Nagasaki during World War II had the energy of a 5.0 earthquake on the Richter scale.   The San Francisco Bay earthquake was a 6.9 while the Valdivia earthquake that hit Chile in 1960 was 9.5.   No one can say for sure but the projections are that the event that created the Chicxulub crater was a 12.5.    That is a lot of energy for engineers to resolve with superstructures and building design.   But they did.  And they're still resolving damage, since geologists say there have been 27 aftershocks magnitude 6 or greater and 154 over 5.   Incredible!

    Geologists don't use the Richter scale these days.  As scientists learned more they discovered better ways to measure earthquakes and engineers discovered better ways to mitigate their effects.    The earthquake on Friday moved the entire island of Honshu 8 feet to the east.   It took resolve long before this happened, and with no guarantee it would ever happen, to make sure it wasn't much worse.   This is a lesson for everyone to keep in mind when people are discussing policy issues and the planet we live on.

    What would have happened in a country less prepared; a complete cataclysm.    While countries mobilize to help Japan recover we can also give a little thanks for showing us how to be prepared.

    Comments

    i guess we could also say at least Katrina happened in the US because far more people would have died in say Jamaica. or at least 9/11 happened in New York because way more deaths would have occurred in a larger building say the Shanghai World Financial Center. i guess there really is an upside to everything isn't there?

    Hank
    It certainly makes my point about preparedness and policy meeting in a smart place.  When the Army Corps of Engineers wanted to fix things in that region in the 1990s they were blocked by lawsuits from activists with concerns about the environment.   And the people who tried to warn their superiors about potential terrorists with expired visas were censured for profiling.
    "In the context of all that it may seem cavalier to state that if it has to happen, at least it happened in Japan"

    I would say that this statement wasn't cavalier, but resounds with callous disregard.

    The death toll in this disaster is likely to be in the tens of thousands, because of the population that has moved into coastal areas in the last century. historically in japan people did not live or build permanent dwellings on the coast because of such risks. it is partly the over confidence in preparedness that changed the more cautious building practices of the past.

    with a 10 meter tsunami no matter where in the world it happened you would see deaths in the tens of thousands if the coast is densely populated.

    with all the resources available to us in our modern societies i think the fact that we need a tremendous loss of life anywhere to facilitate policy changes and infrastructure upgrades is more of a downside than an upside.

    Hank
    I would say that this statement wasn't cavalier, but resounds with callous disregard.
    Only if you are determined to exaggerate for emotional effect.   1,000 lives because Japan is arguably the most prepared in the world versus 400,000 for countries that are not is obviously not callous disregard, it is an endorsement that sometimes people and governments need to plan for bad things even if there is no guarantee they may happen.

    Japan is an island and they hold regular drills for this kind of thing.   That is good planning.
    well to address your first point the figure of 1000 is what many would consider an extremely low estimate with most news agencies report 1800 believed dead of course this would only be accurate if the tens of thousands of missing from coastal towns such as Kesennuma, Hachinohe, Kuji. Rikuzen-Takata etc.. suddenly reappear. it is far to early to be claiming any great triumph over death when there are so many thousands of people unaccounted for.

    I understand the point you are trying to make but it is a counterfactual fallacy. Yes it could have been worse, almost everything can be. but this hardly translates to an "upside" to the event.

    Although the damage to the nuclear power plant also seems to be less serious than initially advertised, it still makes me wonder what nuclear power plants are doing in a geologically sensitive area! I guess the reason has to do with Japan's high population density and limited natural resources. Apparently there are 17 nuclear power plants in Tokyo alone( at least 55 in the country), and to their credit, those in Tokyo all came out of the major earthquake unscathed.
    logicman
    Hank: thanks for the link.

    Japan was well prepared - thanks to the Japanese people's acceptance that government interference in business practices can be a darn good thing - but only if founded in good science and engineering practices.
    Hank
    That's sort of what I was getting at with "This is a lesson for everyone to keep in mind when people are discussing policy issues and the planet we live on."   The conservative in me doesn't want crazy big government, people telling people what car to drive, what light bulbs to use, etc. but something important like, you know, the environment or nuclear power, we have to prepare for bad stuff.
    logicman
    The conservative in me doesn't want crazy big government, people telling people what car to drive, what light bulbs to use, etc. but something important like, you know, the environment or nuclear power, we have to prepare for bad stuff.

    Hank: we seem to be singing from the same hymn-sheet here.

    I must be doing something wrong. ;-)
    You do realize that this is not standard 'conservative' doctrine right? As we saw when Bobby Jindal mocked the idea of "volcano monitoring" in his response to Obama's state of the union speech a couple of years ago, modern 'conservatism' generally denigrates ALL forms of government 'interference'... including for disaster preparedness and relief. Hence the Bush administration's promotion of individual giving to charitable organizations as a response to hurricane Katrina... and Jindal's argument in that same speech that it was local individuals who 'saved the day' during the Katrina disaster rather than wasteful government intervention.

    Nobody wants "crazy big government". There just appear to be radically different ideas of what that is. Government telling people who they can marry, what religious beliefs should be preached in schools and other public institutions, and what their 'morals' should be oddly ISN'T 'crazy big government' to 'conservatives', but government offering small tax incentives (infinitesimal in comparison to fossil fuel subsidies) to buy electric and hybrid vehicles IS... despite converting to those technologies being absolutely essential to the survival of our economy in the upcoming decades. It is simply a fact that the cars we drive in 2100 won't be running on gasoline... we need to start acknowledging that fact and 'preparing' for it or the result WILL be "bad stuff".

    Being prepared for an earthquake / tsunami which COULD happen sometime in the next century is good government policy, but being prepared for depletion of a resource on which all of modern society depends which WILL happen sometime in the next century is not?

    Hank
    Certainly there are degrees of those who call themselves conservatives just like there are various kinds of progressives - and no progressive in America is actually liberal but both progressives and conservatives seem to throw the term around, well, liberally.

    Most conservatives I know do not believe in no government for the common benefit - that is in defiance of the Constitution - and the kookier anti-government stance is for hard libertarians.  And certainly some conservatives only believe in it when it comes to social issues whereas some, like me, are only right of center on money and are liberals when it comes to social policy.  Basically, I could not be a Democrat or a Republican in today's parties but I could easily have been either 50 years ago, when Democrats were allowed to be strong on defense and Republicans were allowed to stay out of private lives.
    But also have you to think about the children its always government this and government that what about the children.And cutting the soldiers checks good luck with that gov. what going to happen when most of the starts quitting.And people stop joining we are going to be looking stupid then.

    It is foolish to think the actual death toll is anywhere near 1000. The final toll will be grim and measured in the tens of thousands.

    Hank
    Let's hope not.  My prediction is it will turn out to be less rather than more - people will be found that are missing and presumed dead.   But I agree it is best not to be too optimistic when these huge aftershocks are still happening.
    One more thing: I think the Indonesian event is the probably the wrong comparison. While I completely agree that Japanese preparedness saved innumerable lives, this resulted mostly from strict building codes that prevented collapse during the quake. A better comparison would be the quakes in central Asia (Armenia, Turkey), where victims died by building collapse. In Japan, very few people appear to have died this way.

    Unfortunately, there is relatively little that can be done against tsunamis except for evacuation. While Indonesia did not have tsunami warning systems in place, neither Indonesia nor Japan had enough time for warning to be effective in these particular cases. Building houses on stilts will not be effective near the coast unless people will tolerate a 25-30 foot walk-up. Further from the coast, there is too much debris for anything to work. When the final tolls are tallied, fewer people will have died in Japan than in Indonesia simply because fewer people lived close to the Japanese epicenter and the quake & tsunami were smaller in Japan.

    Hank
    Indonesia is the right comparison because of the difference in preparation; a 9.1 versus an 8.9 is not dramatically different but the death toll is.   Unlike central Asia, the Japanese made efforts to insure buildings would not collapse which is another validation of the benefits of the Japanese approach.

    I agree warning systems are limited to a few minutes but the Japanese had drills in coastal towns.  Basically they did as much as anyone could have done.    
    "The earthquake on Friday moved the entire island of Honshu 8 feet to the east."

    Wow! Someone extrapolate for me the force required to accomplish that.

    I suspect that if an event such as this one took place just offshore from Los Angeles or San Francisco, the devastation would be even greater than you can imagine. From that perspective, I agree with the title of this thread.

    logicman
    "The earthquake on Friday moved the entire island of Honshu 8 feet to the east."

    Wow! Someone extrapolate for me the force required to accomplish that.

    1.995262e+18 Joules, or 4.768791e+8 tons of TNT.

    The following equation can be used to approximate the amount of energy released from an earthquake in joules when Richter magnitude (M) is known:

    Energy in joules = 1.74 x 10(5 + 1.44*M) 

    source:

    http://www.physicalgeography.net/fundamentals/10m.html

    Thanks Patrick. That's a lot of dynamite.

    I actually misread the report. It said that the island moved 8 feet east. The tidal wave came from the east. Ergo, the tsunami didn't move the island as I had thought.

    So, what happened? The subduction of one plate by another should have lifted the overburden as it shoved it slightly forward. There haven't been any reports of new mountains on the island nor does it appear to have risen above sea level.

    hmmm. Perhaps the Pacific plate fell away from Japan. Perhaps some of the geologists will chime in and set me straight on this. **

    **I'd like to blame it on Hank's new moon thingy. lol

    Gerhard Adam
    **I'd like to blame it on Hank's new moon thingy. lol
    I think some of the posters want to blame it on Hank personally :)
    Mundus vult decipi
    "I suspect that if an event such as this one took place just offshore from Los Angeles or San Francisco, the devastation would be even greater than you can imagine."

    The USGS says that there are very few thrust faults offshore from Southern California, so the chances of such an event happening here are slim.

    I would think Hank it is a possible pointer to newzealand's south island's future as many there are wondering where do we go to from here and some are moving out in despair.If i lived in one of these places I think i'd be living on the mountains in a shed[less to fall on me and easy to recover afterwards].Surly we can't just leave valuable land vacant.

    Sunday

    The toll now stands at a possible 10,000 and going upward. That's a one with four zeros behind it.

    You might want to revise your title and article. Better now than later.

    Hank
    Articles are snapshots in time, it would be dishonest to change anything.   10,000 is still much better than the 400,000 it was 6 years ago.   When I wrote this the total was 521 so an estimate of 1,000 by their government was reasonable.   With their population density and the nature of this earthquake, anything under 5 zeroes is a validation of their preparedness.
    Gerhard Adam
    The Coast Guard has suspended its search for a man reported washed out to sea after he and two friends went to the California coast to photograph the tsunami wave spawned by the Japanese earthquake, officials said.
    http://abcnews.go.com/US/california-man-swept-sea-tsunami/story?id=13112901
    I wonder if this counts or should simply be filed under "Stupid People Tricks".
    Mundus vult decipi
    IT IS RIGHT TIME FOR ENDGLANDED UNITED KONDOM GO THROUGH A 10 SCALE EARTH QUAKE AT SELLAFIELD & FLYINGDALE AREA OF NORTH ENDGLAND. SO BE IT

    I like the blog hank ,a brave effort at this time.Dont like the title though;there is no upside to this horrible event,i wish you would change it to something like'lessons learned from' rather than 'the upside of'.