Natural disasters like that in Japan can happen to any and all of us, no matter in the world we all. The March 12th New York Times describes the ‘surprisingly destructive’ power of water’:
…. when water is moving at 30 or 40 miles an hour, like the tsunami that inundated northern Japan on Friday, the heaviness of water turns deadly. Imagine 1,700 pounds hitting you at that speed, and each cubic yard of water as another 1,700 pounds bearing down on you. The destructiveness of a tsunami is not just one runaway car, but a fleet of them.
And, according to Harry Yeh, a professor of ocean engineering at Oregon State University, the earthquake on Friday resulted in a change to the ocean floor itself. The tsunami pushed a section of it 250 miles long and 50 miles down by an average of one yard, with the result that billions of cubic yards of water—that is, trillions of pounds, suddenly shifted position. We’ve no real idea of how such a change might affect other parts of the planet.
In addition to the damage that a tsunami can inflict along coastlines in particular countries, it can also have an effect on the entire earth. The planet’s oceans are very heavy, applying enormous pressure to the ocean crust. When the distribution of that pressure is shifted, as it is during an earthquake, it can induce wobbles in the earth’s rotation.
At Scientific American, Richard Allen writes about how the disaster in Japan could have been even worse. Japan is on of the most earthquake-prone regions of the world, but it has ‘steadily pushed the limits of earthquake preparedness.’ However,
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.
An earthquake of almost as great a magnitude as that in Japan last week could strike the US and we’re not ready. Allen lists what we need to do:
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.
Earthquakes are common in Greece too and many buildings are built solidly to strict codes but not so in the US—which is to say, not only could an earthquake like that which struck Japan occur in the US: The destruction could be even, could be far, worse.
When hearing about cataclysmic events like these, many of us—perhaps unconsciously—breathe a sigh of relief that ‘it happened somewhere else.’ But we need to remember that natural disasters—earthquakes, tsunamis, flooding—can happen, have happen, everywhere.
I first heard about the the tsunami in Japan from a TV monitor in Frankfurt. I was at the airport on a layover with a group of students from my college: We were en route to Greece. I haven’t been able to be online too much as we have been traveling to different archaeological sites. I’ve been checking the news as much as I can and did hear our tour guide talking about Japan.
One site we visited was ancient Olympia, where the original Olympic games were held. At the temple of Jupiter, the tour guide described how an earthquake in the 6th century AD as powerful as the one that struck Japan—9.0 on the Richter scale—had destroyed the temple and flung its massive marble columns around its base like so many Tinker Toys. My students and I walked amid huge fragments of stone columns and tried to imagine what the temple looked like when it was whole.
It’s amazing that some of the Temple of Zeus has survived. But would the Empire State Building?
For more Care2 coverage on the Japanese natural disasters, click here.
Photo by Generationbass.c.