Learning from Japan’s Disaster: What Tsunamis Teach Us?

All those lost lives in northern Japan, all of those damaged homes prompt us to remember what in normal times we are always minded to forget:. The most rigorous and scary truth, that humanity dwells in this earth are dependent on geological consent which can be taken back at any time.

For hundreds, this consent was withdrawn with shocking suddenness—all geologic outcomes are sudden, and all are unpredicted at least on this clear, days. One second all were working in offices, traveling on trains, working in rice fields, shopping in stores, busy in schools, in warehouses and then all of a sudden the ground began to shake. Initially, the shock was merely a much bigger and denser version of the normal quakes which is usual to most Japanese. There came a cold silence, as there always does. But then, the difference is a few minutes later a low rumble from the east, and in a terrible replay of the Indian Ocean tragedy of just some six years before, the tragedy of which is still in mind, the coastal waters off the northern Honshu vanished, mysteriously out to sea.

Quake Plate Tectonics

We all now know, and have for 50 years, that geography is the ultimate cause for the calamity. Japan is at the junction of a web of tectonic plate boundaries that make it more peculiarly susceptible to quakes than anywhere else and it is because of Japanese engineering ingenuity, of social coherence, of the ready acceptance of authority and the infliction of necessary discipline that lets so many to survive these regular displays of tectonic power.

But geography is not the only component in this specific and acutely terrible event. Topography acted an especially tragic role in the story. It is known to all those who dwell in high tsunami risk coast side that when the sea draws back, you run, run inland and, if at all possible, you climb uphill. On this side of northeast Japan, full of plains and agriculture fields and manufacturing plants and airports, there is no uphill.

Mountains are far away, further in the west. All here is coastal plain. And so the reality is this – if a huge wave is chasing you inland at the speed of a jet, and if the flat topography all around refuses you any chance of sprinting to a hill to try to run away from its wrath, then you can make no mistake – it will overtake you, it will drown you, and its forces will crash you out of all recognition as a thing of utter insignificance, which of course, to a tsunami, all men and women and their creations necessarily must be.

This event cannot be viewed in isolation. There was a terrific Pacific earthquake in New Zealand on February 22nd 2011, that recorded 8.8 in the scale in Chile almost precisely a year before. All these involved the same same gropu of circum Pacific fault lines and plate boundaries. Though there is still no hard scientific proof to explain why, there is little doubt now that quakes do tend to come in clusters. A substantial quake on one side of a major tectonic plate is often followed later by another on the plate’s far side. It is as if earth behaves like a great gong bell, which when struck by an large hammer blow on one side sets to vibrating all over. Now there have been damaging events at three corners of the Pacific Plate – one in the northwest, on Friday, one in the southwest, last month, one in the southeast, last year.

That leaves just one corner untouched – the northeast. And the fault line in the northeast of the Pacific Plate is the San Andreas Fault, supporting the city of San Francisco.

All of which makes the geological community very understanding. All know that the San Andreas Fault is due to rupture one day – it last did so in 1906, and strains have built beneath it to a barely tolerable level. To break again, with unimaginable consequences for the millions who live above it, some triggering event has to occur. Now three events have occurred that might all be regarded as triggering events. There are in consequence a lot of thoughtful people in the American West who are very disturbed indeed, wondering, as they often must do, whether the consent that permits them to inhabit so pleasant a place, might be about to be removed, sooner than they have thought.


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