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The essential lesson from the Japan earthquake for the U.S.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Explosion at JFE Steel Chiba factory after Japan 2011 earthquakeAs we watch in the images rolling in from Japan we are yet again reminded of the sudden destructive potential of mother Earth. The number of fatalities is currently in the hundreds; the number displaced from their homes is in the tens of thousands. The tsunami generated by this magnitude 8.9 earthquake sent a wall of water sweeping across Japan, and across the Pacific. It was more than 30 feet high in places and reached six miles inland carrying cars, homes and everything else with it. Although the earthquake was 230 miles northeast of Tokyo, this was the worst shaking that people have felt in a city used to earthquakes. Explosions at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station have leaked radioactive material into the surrounding area, and we will undoubtedly hear of other catastrophic impacts over the next few days.

But it could have been much worse. The 2010 Haiti earthquake was magnitude 7; Japan’s earthquake released almost 1000 times more energy than the Haiti event. Yet it is estimated that more than 200,000 people were killed in Haiti compared to the current estimate of hundreds in Japan. The reason for this difference is that Japan is one of the most earthquake-ready countries on Earth, Haiti was not. 

For decades Japan has steadily pushed the limits of earthquake preparedness. It invests in research and development to understand the earthquake process and create infrastructure that is better able to withstand future effects. Their state of the art buildings shake but do not collapse. Classes about earthquakes in their schools make earthquake preparedness part of everyone’s lifestyle, and regular public earthquake drills reinforce this for a lifetime. Their seismic networks, the best in the world, provide a tsunami warning system, and more recently an earthquake warning system that provided tens of seconds warning in this earthquake.

This long-term investment that Japan has made to reduce the impact of earthquakes seems like a very good deal today. It has undoubtedly saved many thousands of lives, and will also reduce the long-term impact of the earthquake on the economy as Japan rapidly bounces back. The investment will pay for itself many times over for this earthquake, and the next.

In the U.S. we also have an earthquake problem. Our west-coast cities are built atop active fault zones that give us occasional jolts reminding us of their presence from time to time. The 1989 magnitude 7.0 Loma Prieta earthquake was one such reminder, as was the 1994 magnitude 6.7 Northridge earthquake. Both events were moderate in size and the strongest shaking was in unpopulated mountainous areas. We have not seen the true power of west-coast earthquakes since 1906 when a magnitude 8 earthquake destroyed San Francisco. Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area, or Seattle could be next. 

Today, we should not have any illusions about the ability of an earthquake to bring wide-spread destruction a modern city. We most recently experienced the might of mother Earth in the U.S. when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005. In addition to the immediate destruction of the widespread flooding, New Orleans also stands as a testament to the long-term effects of these events on our cities. The recent census count shows that the New Orleans population is still down almost one third since the previous pre-Katrina count. 

So what is our fate on the west coast? Do we follow Japan’s lead, or do we fall back in the direction of Haiti? We must use this terrible event in Japan as a reminder to redouble our efforts to build an earthquake resilient society. We need to invest in the research and the development that brings about better earthquake safety. We must push the limits of our technologies to deliver new earthquake mitigation strategies. 

Modern buildings are built to standards that make them unlikely to collapse, but we need to focus on improving older buildings to bring them up to modern standards. We need more education about earthquake preparedness in our schools, and large-scale drills such as the California Shake-Out. And we need a warning system, like the one that delivered a warning in Japan. A prototype is operational in California. With only a moderate investment, public warnings could be available state-wide. Perhaps this warning from Japan can spur the investment now. We will be very glad we did when the next earthquake strikes.

Richard M. Allen is the Associate Director of the University of California, Berkeley, Seismological Laboratory and an associate professor in the university’s Department of Earth & Planetary Science

Image of the explosion at the JFE Steel Chiba factory via the Creative Commons license of Danny Choo


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  1. 1. Torchlake 4:21 pm 03/12/2011

    The U.S. is consistently in a state of Crisis-Management! We still allow people to move into and build on/in hazardous areas. West Coast landfill areas which turns into Quicksand caused by earthquakes. Mississippi River flood plains. We spend our monies on Entertainment and recreation. Just like the Romans did!
    This country hangs tenuously out on the limb of good luck. Luck never lasts very long!

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  2. 2. fyngyrz 4:43 pm 03/12/2011

    Oh, for goodness sake.

    So overcomplicated and lost in a sea of touchy-feely stupidity. Responsibility, responsibility, responsibility.

    Here are the lessons for individuals and corporations:

    1) Don’t live in an area prone to natural disaster, unless
    2) You are insured AND prepared to deal with said disaster
    3) But by all means, you should be free to choose
    4) It’s ALWAYS a choice. You have other options.

    Here are the lessons for liberal cry-babies:

    1) These decisions are the RESIDENTS responsibility
    2) Don’t pick my pocket to pay for their bad decisions
    3) "Charity" isn’t taking money from the unwilling
    4) It does NOT mean you should "make a law"

    …this society has so lost sight of liberty, responsibility, and honor… in favor of "we know better than you" meddling with everything in sight.

    Torchlake: Don’t kid yourself. We spend most of our money on useless, pointless wars in order to support the corporations who control our government. But I agree, we should be spending on infrastructure and energy systems that don’t depend on undependable sources we cannot possibly hope to control.

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  3. 3. Martin Wirth 11:25 pm 03/12/2011

    I estimate the probability that we will go the way of Haiti on earthquake prevention to be about 50%, Japan about 10%, or something half-baked but slightly better than Haiti about 40%. Evidently, Tea Party conservatives can read Scientific American without the least bit of comprehension or respect. It’s too "complicated" and "lost in a sea of touchy-feely stupidity" because you can’t make it easy enough for them to understand no matter how much you dumb it down.

    Conservatives feel the same way about economics, which is why we’re in dire straights in that area. Japan was flush when they planned and implemented their earthquake prevention strategy. We Americans have handed over most of our cash to a class of robber barons or, more precisely, people who pay themselves billions to screw things up. These would gladly let buildings crash down on their occupants and then blame the dead and injured for being there. This sort of blame is to justify doing nothing in order to have a little more money for now and sustain a level of social irresponsibility that boggles the mind.

    Of course, their Tea Party minions clearly agree that victims of poorly designed and shoddy structures in earthquake zones choose to get killed. Never mind that they could have moved there to take a job and are living in an apartment structure that looks good on the outside but is too flimsy too withstand a moderate shake.

    Political conservatives fail to see the irony of their own stupidity. They would put the responsibility on the renters, homeowners, and workers to know all about the structural soundness of the buildings they occupy. Meanwhile, as they spew nonsense about "liberal cry-babies" enforcing good engineering and "picking their pockets" to pay for it, political conservatives know zilch about structural engineering themselves. Never mind about building codes, quality assurance, engineering standards, strength of materials, structural dynamics, finite element analysis, computer modeling, or testing.

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  4. 4. jeffedlund 5:35 pm 03/13/2011

    Awesome post Martin!
    Although I usually hate to see politics get mixed into Scientific American comments, time-and-time again, but yours was well stated.

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  5. 5. denswei 7:58 pm 03/13/2011

    Oh, for goodness sake.
    Almost every region in the US is prone to one kind of natural disaster or another. Good luck finding an absolutely safe place to live & locate your business, especially if your market is somewhere not so safe.

    Responsibility, responsibility, responsibility. It is the voter’s responsibility to elect leaders with enough intelligence & common sense to take responsibility for the common good. Right-wingers have no problem understanding the value of a centrally controlled & funded military, but apparently lack the imagination to imagine mother nature as an equally real threat.

    Now we’ve seen what happens when a nation does not (or cannot) prepare for a inevitable, eventual crisis as in Haiti, and what happens when a nation works together to prepare for the inevitable.

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  6. 6. jbandlow 9:29 pm 03/13/2011

    Insurance risk analysis should have required that backup
    systems/controls, located on safe ground, be connected
    through at least one quake/tsunami-resistant tunnel.
    Or do they operate on a ministry buddy system in Japan ?

    Likely some coastal plants worldwide lack such backup.
    Safety/meltdown risks trump the cost.

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  7. 7. Elderlybloke 10:36 pm 03/13/2011

    In Wellington , the capital city of New Zealand the local newspaper has obtained a list of buildings that are not up to current earthquake resistance standard.

    There are 800 of them and Wellington is not a big city.
    I wonder if your City Councils have compiled such a list.
    They need to be aware of the risks and have a good department who are capable of doing such a task , and not leaving it because there seem to be more important things.

    Some of you might find it interesting ,or possibly frightening to find out.

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