11th March 2011 2:46pm (Japan Standard Time)

Mar 15, 2011  

I don’t need to tell anyone about what happened as it’s hard to avoid the news, but to give an idea of the scale and scope of the problem I’ve decided to collate information I find about the earthquake that hit North East Japan a few days ago.

The earthquake

The earthquake in Japan was 9.0 on the Richter scale.  This is a massive quake, and it was physically felt many hundreds of miles away, and still was significant in Osaka.  Most buildings in Japan, however, are built to withstand earthquakes as they get them from time to time (there are about three main fault-lines underneath Japan).

  • It was an earthquake with a magnitude of 9.0 on the Richter scale.
    • With every increase in points of the Richter scale, the magnitude increases exponentially.
      • Anything less than 2.0 can't be felt
      • 10.0 is the absolute maximum in the scale, and has never been recorded.  Theoretically this could cause destruction on a global scale.
      • Around 3.5 can cause disruption and can be felt, but rarely causes problems.
      • Anywhere between 8.0 and 9.0 can cause severe damage over hundreds to thousands of miles.
    • The larger the quake, the more aftershocks may be felt.
An earthquake similar to that experienced in Japan can be felt up to several days afterwards.  Today (4 days after the initial earthquake), there was yet another quake that was around 6.0.  This latest quake was in a slightly more central area than before, and buildings in Tokyo swayed. The tsunami The initial earthquake caused a massive tsunami that devastated villages in the north-east coast of Japan.  It was told to be around 10 metres high, and swept away buildings and cars and everything else in its path.  Earthquakes can be protected against with clever engineering, but there isn't much that can stop a wall of water.  This tsunami could have threatened other nearby coasts, and there were initially warnings of a potential tsunami across Hawaii, Russia and the Philippine islands. The size of the tsunami experienced here is rare, and unlikely to be seen more than once in one millennia (thousand years) in Japan on the same level. Update 17.03.2011 - Just to give an idea of the scale of the devastation, here's a quote taken from the BBC's live feed: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-12307698
1525: Tetsuo Jimbo, editor of the Japanese website videonews.com, has just come back from Rikuzen Takada, one of the cities worst affected by the disaster. He told BBC World Service that about 20% of the population of the city has lost a family member. "The whole city is in grief right now. The city is completely wiped out, there's nothing left, no houses… The city hall is gone, the police station, the fire station, they are all gone. It's very difficult to even come up with words like reconstruction or rebuilding right now."
The nuclear threat Of the three threats, this is the most worrying as a nuclear plant in Fukushima (it's about 150 miles north-west of Tokyo) has now had four explosions, and radiation has already leaked into the atmosphere.  It is said that this has reached harmful levels close to the plant, but at the time of writing, the deadly radiation inside the reactors is still contained - although there are some conflicting reports regarding this: There have also been some hoax reports that claim that radiation has been blown towards other east asian countries which doesn't help. If the reactors stay intact, and can be cooled (sea-water is being pumped in to attempt to cool the reactors and hopefully reduce the damage caused) then a serious threat hopefully won't become anything like a Chernobyl event; I believe that the way the reactors are constructed that nothing on the same scale as Chernobly should be possible, so here's hoping. The official word at the moment is that people within 25 miles of the plant are advised to stay indoors, and those closer (within 18 miles) were advised to move farther away.  Many people are being tested for radiation, and some other countries are scanning for radiation in people that have returned from Japan.  Nothing serious has been reported yet, so the hope is that it doesn't get worse... but it could be very serious.  Tokyo has seen a slight increase in radiation, although "not a worrying amount", and because winds have been prevailing to the west, much of the airborne radiation that's escaped has been blown over the sea.  The radiation reported as having leaked so far has quite a short half-life, and can dissipate after a few months.  If one of the reactors breaks, then the radiation that leaks could be much, much more lethal. As a knock-on effect, though, it's been necessary to switch off power to many areas of Japan at a time to conserve energy.  Most people get their water pumped to them, so reduced electricity has meant that many people are cut-off from water supplies. Obviously transportation has also been badly affected.  There have been massive queues for fuel, food and water, and in many areas supplies are dwindling. Black-outs are affecting much of Japan, and not just the north-west areas and a few of the bigger companies have closed down to also help reduce electricy consumption. Update 16.03.2011 - the news is still sketchy.  They're still trying to reduce the temperature in the four reactors of the damaged Fukishima plant to try to prevent total meltdown.  As far as I know, even a worst case scenario wouldn't put it in the same level as Chernobyl in terms of danger, but it still could get worse... it's a tense time for many (over 30 million) people in Tokyo as they're not sure if they will need to evacuate if the radiation levels increase.  News is mixed and it's hard to tell what is right as only the people working in the plant know what's going on and information either takes a while to get disseminated or in some (worse) cases, just gets made up for the sake of "news" - conjecture and assumptions are likely to cause panic, but not everyone trusts the information they've been given.  It's an uncertain time... Update 17.03.2011 - To put things in perspective, here's another comment from the BBC's live feed:
1617: Kevin Dunn, in Tokyo, writes: "Why is the western media so focused on the non-event that Fukushima is? An expert on the Chernobyl aftermath on BBC tonight said, "nothing has been learnt from Chernobyl by the media", it's the same sensationalist, stress and anxiety inducing scaremongering. The lessons that have been learnt are in action now by Tepco power company. She says that they have done everything "by the book", and she "very much doubts" anyone will be seriously effected by the damage of the plants. The Fukushima nuclear power plant situation is not the disaster, the real disaster is further north where tens of thousands of men, women and children have died, millions are homeless, hundreds of kids are now orphans. We have made donations and hope to volunteer. The Japanese people need our help, not for us to run away and abandon them to their fate."
The economy In a country that's already been hit by recession, and was starting to work its way back out, it's a really bad time for the economy.  Other countries and investors are losing faith in Japan's ability to bounce back and shares have dropped significantly. Update 16.03.2011 - apparently the yen has increased in value (about 80 yen to one USD) to the best it has been since WW2 after initially dropping. And so... I do believe that one person can make a difference, just by caring; much of this is something that could have happened anywhere and I do wonder what it would be like if it was the UK in crisis rather than Japan. Many countries (including a few in Europe, and Russia) are already re-assessing how nuclear energy is to be used and how to safeguard against earthquakes and large-scale tsunamis, and hopefully there is a lot of good that can come of this by heeding what's happened... In the meantime, Japan needs support, but most of all the rescue and aid workers need support so that they can do their job.  I think it's important that if you are to help that you make sure that the money goes to the people who need it most... I haven't had time to do the research myself, yet, but the following links have some good information about aid workers and how to support them: